Belonging: an important part of your university experience

A strong sense of belonging is important for your mental health

As humans, we innately strive to belong. The science behind the psychology of belonging proves that it’s imperative for our mental, physical, and emotional well-being—it serves as a fundamental human motivation. This sense of acceptance and support can be found in family, friends, sports teams, university study groups, and more.  

Dating back to 1943, studies have referred to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs to explain just how important authentic connections are to our survival. The community we create and the social groups we join enhance our well-being beyond just a sense of belonging. According to a study published in Nature Neuroscience, when humans are forced into isolation, the brain triggers a craving for social interaction quite similar to what we feel when we are hungry. 

Why community matters at university

Research has shown that the way we present ourselves to the world affects how well we perform. According to Forbes, “People who dress better have more confidence, feel more powerful, and are more focused on details.” This notion of ‘dressing the part’ is similar to the idea that building diverse connections enhances self-esteem and well-being. At university, connections can be made both in and outside the classroom.

The feeling of belonging, according to empirical evidence from Dr. Maithreyi Gopalan, can improve academic outcomes and safeguard mental health. In some cases, it can even have a lasting effect in the workplace long after graduation. As students first step into this new social and academic world that is university, they may feel unsure about the transition, which can be referred to as belonging uncertainty. However, this uncertainty is quickly eliminated as they begin to build authentic connections with like-minded people. 

In research carried out by Wonkhe and Pearson, there are four main foundations upon which students build a sense of belonging: connection, inclusion, support, and autonomy. Peer connections boost confidence, which further leads to strong academic results. Inclusion in course content offers credibility and the ability to relate both to what they are learning and to their peers, allowing students to gain a more well-rounded viewpoint. Similarly, feeling supported drastically reduces imposter syndrome and helps them feel more self-confident, especially if the support comes from faculty or staff. And establishing autonomy, particularly in decision-making, reduces anxiety and assures their ability to make progress. These elements are the basis of a more cohesive community. 

Fostering a sense of belonging

As issues with mental health continue to rise among university students, researchers have found that psychosocial stress is a strong factor. The study showed that 29% of students had elevated levels of depression, while 27% faced elevated anxiety and 24% elevated stress levels. 

One way to release psychosocial stress and lower these numbers is for students to find stable and positive interpersonal relationships. According to the study, “There is a strong positive relation between an individual's sense of interpersonal belonging and their ratings of happiness and subjective well-being.”

Boosting belonging can be done in a variety of ways. Here are a few things students can try:

  • Join a club, gym, sports team, or extracurricular activity of interest

  • Use mindfulness as a tool to help build authentic connections

  • Ask questions and listen—try to get to know people deeply

  • Embrace diversity and use it as an avenue way to learn new things 

  • Practice acceptance and patience; remember, everyone moves at a different pace

Letting others in is a great way to start feeling a stronger sense of community, support, and belonging and, in turn, experience better mental health.

Creating connections that last 

At IE University, for example, students from all over the world come together for a common purpose: to further advance their personal and professional lives. However, everyone is also trying to find a way to feel like they belong.

This multicultural setting allows students to come together in a unique way. As one alum points out, “Diversity is one of the main factors that distinguishes IE University from any other institution. It pushes us to connect at a higher level and build on our different backgrounds to reach the same goal.” 

Students heading off to university are embarking on new adventures and starting to build their adult lives. And sometimes, they are seeking to build a family away from home. Another IE University student explained that the ability to create numerous authentic connections with people from all over the world has had a positive effect on his overall well-being. “I feel that I am understood and cared for by the people around me—something I believe is truly important, especially as someone who is living away from home for the first time.” 

University is an opportunity to find new hobbies, make new friends, discover new passions, and learn things both inside and outside of the classroom. IE University works tirelessly to give students the chance to create a strong sense of community, especially because of its potential to impact their mental health and well-being. The executive director of campus life believes that the welcoming elements that students foster for each other—like a smile, an invitation to work together, or a friendly ‘hello’ on campus—make the IE Community what it is today. Older students are excited to welcome new students with open arms and help inspire them to want to pass the torch when it’s their turn. No matter the passion or interest, there is a community waiting. 

The next step

As a university student, take advantage of the opportunities to build a community around you. Stay open to new things and embrace the changes that come with going to university—it will allow you to branch out and become a healthier, happier version of yourself.