Digest No. 10 - March 2022

You Belong with Me: Helping First-Gen Students Find Their Place at Your Institution

Museus, S. D., and T. Chang. 2021. “The Impact of Campus Environments on Sense of Belonging for First Generation College Students.” Journal of College Student Development 62 (3): 367–372.


How do educators create belonging on campuses for first-generation students? Defined as “those reporting that no parent attended college” (p. 368), first-generation college students (FGS) have been identified as an important social identity group for consideration, with a number of empirical efforts documenting their distinctive experiences before and during college. In addition, sense of belonging has been routinely identified as critical for retaining students from minoritized identities (see Strayhorn, 2018).

Controlling for a host of theoretically justified covariates (race, age, living situation, and employment status), the authors found that the more campuses were able to validate these students regarding their backgrounds and identities, the more likely the students were to feel that they belonged on campus.

Discussion of the Findings

Several factors were identified as important for consideration, including first-year students’ perceptions of and experiences with educational environments that provided: a) greater access to people with whom they share common backgrounds and experiences, b) community-relevant learning opportunities, c) service projects that allowed them to give back to their respective communities, d) clear messaging about campus values that were grounded in what the authors called “collectivist orientations” (p. 367), and e) experiences that validated their backgrounds and identities. Although all these factors were important for understanding sense of belonging among first-year students, the experiences that validated their backgrounds and identities were most important. These experiences were related directly to sense of belonging and indirectly due to its relationship between with the other factors listed above. It is also worth noting that participation in service projects that allowed first-generation students to give back to their respective communities was related directly to sense of belonging.

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

The study provides a number of implications for campus leaders. In the authors’ words, “With regard to practice, campus leaders that seek to improve sense of belonging among FGS should provide structures, spaces, programs, and events designed for these students to connect with other people who are also the first in their families to attend college. For example, orientations could be designed to connect first-generation students with peers, faculty members, and staff who have themselves been first-generation students. Educators should also ensure that FGS have the opportunity to acquire and exchange knowledge relevant to their backgrounds and identities, such as at conferences and social events. Educators can also construct relevant service projects that give FGS the opportunity to give back to their pre-college neighborhoods and high schools, as well as to support other FGS on their campus (for example, through peer mentoring and tutoring programs for FGS)” (p. 372).

The authors also underscored the importance of adopting an equity-minded framework for creating educational solution sets that help first-year students. Rather than blame FGS for their lack of sense of belonging, educators should see themselves as change agents charged with helping these students succeed. Also, educators who design service opportunities should take an equity-minded approach to the problems underserved populations face—and provide opportunities to learn about how systems marginalize underserved populations, instead of focusing on why these populations don’t just help themselves.


Samuel Museus is professor of education studies and director of the National Institute for Transformation and Equity at the University of California, San Diego.

Ting-Han Chang is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Strayhorn, T. L. 2018. College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students, Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Rendon, L. 1992. “From the Barrio to the Academy: Revelations of a Mexican American ‘Scholarship Girl’.” In First Generation Students: Confronting the Cultural Issues, edited by L. Zwerling and H. London, 55–64. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Toutkoushian, R., R. Stollberg, and K. Slaton. 2018. “Talking ‘bout My Generation: Defining ‘First Generation College Students’ in Higher Education Research.” Teachers College Record 120 (4): 1–38.