College Releases Strategic Plan to Improve Belonging
Issue   |   Tue, 02/27/2018 - 19:06

The Amherst College Belonging Committee released the Strategic Plan to Increase Belonging that will be shared with the Amherst community on Wednesday Feb. 28. The plan was shared with Student Affairs, the Senior Leadership team, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion earlier this month to obtain feedback.

The committee, comprised of Associate Director of Health Education/Mental Health Promotion Jessica Gifford, directors of the Multicultural Resource Center and the Center for Community Engagement, representatives from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Student Affairs and students, met over the last year and a half to gather information and create a plan that defines what it means to belong and details its objective to make the campus more inclusive of all identities. Although the plan is now published, the committee still considers it a work in progress.

According to Gifford, the chair of the Belonging Committee, “[i]n the fall of 2016 the Mental Health and Wellness Committee was forming a group to look at ways to increase belonging and community on campus.”

“This effort arose out of concern about student rates of loneliness, and was a follow-up to a series of focus groups we had held to gain a better understanding of issues of belonging, social connection and community at Amherst,” Gifford wrote in an email interview. “At the same time, Student Affairs was in the process of forming several committees to take up the goals outlined in the earlier campus-wide strategic plan, and one of these committees was to address belonging. We merged these two groups and have been working on developing this plan since then.”

The plan states that its vision for Amherst is one “where community members are valued and respected for who they are, and that celebrates the unique culture, history and experiences that shape each of us.” Its vision is more than just promoting diversity and inclusion as values, but also putting into effect methods that enforce the value of inclusion, the plan said.

The committee defines belonging as “the experience of feeling supported, connected, accepted, respected, valued by and important to, Amherst College, and to individual members of the Amherst community (students, staff and faculty).” It explains that people are more likely to feel as though they belong when they “are valued for who we are as a whole” and that their sense of belonging can be negatively impacted when specific aspects of their identity are attacked. The plan outlines that belonging happens in “four distinct, but overlapping spheres: intellectual/academic, emotion, social and identity.” People may feel as though they belong within a certain sphere of their identity, but at the same time feel like they don’t belong in other spheres.

Although the plan explains what it means to belong, the committee acknowledged that it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact definition because “our understanding is that sense of belonging is fluid, and may change in different contexts and at different times. It is influenced by external circumstances and events as well as internal beliefs.”

According to the plan, promoting a culture of belonging would positively influence students’ academic success as well as student satisfaction and alumni giving. The plan states that by creating a student body with a strong sense of belonging, alumni will be more likely to donate to the college.

Belonging is especially important in today’s world and at an institution like Amherst, the plan stated, because “students who attend elite institutions may have more difficulty achieving a sense of belonging, as intense academic pressure may contribute to fears that they are not smart or accomplished enough to be ‘worthy’ of their place.” This “achievement culture” makes students especially conscious of the way they present themselves and makes it harder to feel as though they belong.

The 2016 American Health Association National College Health Assessment found that “30 percent of Amherst students report feeling ‘very lonely’ within the last two weeks, compared to 27 percent of national college reference group.” Breaking down students into demographic groups, the study found that “43 percent of first-generation students felt lonely in the past two weeks compared to 27 percent of non-first generation students.”

The plan put forth by the Belonging Committee comments that while the college is working towards increasing students’ sense of belonging, there are currently resources and initiatives already working towards this goal of inclusion. According to the plan, students benefit from participating in clubs and sports teams that increase their sense of belonging. The plan also credits the college’s current resource centers — the Multicultural Resource Center, Queer Resource Center and Women’s and Gender Center — common spaces like Valentine Dining Hall and campus-wide activities like the Wellness Fair with promoting a sense of community.

The strategic plan includes a proposal to form a Values Clarification Committee to help oversee the process of identifying three to six “inspiration and aspirational values” that clarify what it means to be a member of the Amherst community and what is expected.

According to the plan, the identification of these three to six values would help “engage community members in conversation about what is most important to them about Amherst.” This process would also “improve mental health and social connectedness” and the plan states that research proves that engaging in conversations about shared values have positive effects for social and emotional health.

The committee also urged the college to create more shared experiences such as “campus traditions, rituals or rites of passage.” Currently, the Mascot Committee is looking into how to develop such experiences.

The plan aims to “increase students’ belonging, engagement and emotional investment in Amherst” by turning students into “co-creators of the Amherst experience”. The committee suggested that students work with community members to voice their opinions on particular issues or campus concern. It also suggested the implementation of a first-year civic engagement project that would work to remedy a campus-wide problem such as how the college can be more eco-friendly.

Members of the Belonging Committee outlined ways to make the “physical spaces on campus more safe, comfortable and welcoming to improve belonging.” Their suggestions include creating inviting student hang-out spaces, helping orient students, staff and visitors, creating more opportunities for community in the residences such as additional theme houses, making all building accessible within the next 10 years and allowing for “student and professional input” on new buildings and remodeling projects.

The committee noted that in order to build a strong sense of belonging on campus, resources need to be distributed and accessible to all people on an equal basis. They recommended developing a “consistent process for determining space and budget allocations, and be transparent about what this process is.” They also proposed a campus-wide student employment policy and process in order to promote equal opportunity and access.

“I am excited about the plan and about how positively it has been received so far,” Gifford said. “I firmly believe that if we undertake the work to achieve the goals outlined in the plan, it will have a big impact on student belonging and the strength of our community.”