Connectivity is key

Developing a sense of belonging through the encouragement of connections and friendship

Supporting students in making connections and building friendships are key elements of the Sense of Belonging Toolkit. Engaging with and developing bonds with others is a source of worry for some students, but when connections are made they have a positive effect on their university experience.

 I think it’s important to remember that you won’t make as close friends as you had at home in the first few weeks. It takes a bit of time. And it’s normal – Student voice

Connectivity is key – think in terms of connections rather than friendships

There are societal expectations that university is where people make their ‘friends for life’ and, whilst this may be true for some, many students struggle with loneliness and making meaningful connections. Loneliness and a lack of genuine friendships can make students feel as though they aren’t having a successful time at university, essentially seeing themselves as having failed.

So how can we help?

Simply encouraging students to be more ‘sociable’ and to ‘make friends’, although coming from a genuine place, can be overwhelming and might unintentionally heighten feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Hope Hutchinson, a University of Leeds student intern, suggests we inspire students to think big by doing small. This means encouraging students to make small, tangible connections such as simply taking a deep breath, smiling and saying hello.

Take this student for example:

I remember my first ever seminar, everyone was so nervous and silent. And I just took a breath and turned to the person next to me and was like “Hi. You, okay?” And they’re still one of my best friends now and I remember them saying, I’m so glad that you took the first step to just say, “Hi. This is me. Do you want to be friends?

Small acts of connectivity can eventually lead to meaningful friendships, but even if this isn’t the case, having the tools to connect with others and interact on an interpersonal level can make you feel as though you belong. Connectivity is key.

Challenges faced by students when making connections and building friendships

The university community is richly diverse so there will be lots of different challenges in making connections and these will according to individuals’ different backgrounds.  Recognising potential barriers that inhibit a sense of belonging for different students is vital in order to progress and perfect the way we embed belonging in our daily practice.

Our international students, when asked how they found making connections and building friendships, said:

I struggled in the beginning, mainly because when you come here, you’re trying to find people who have something in common with you. And it’s easiest to find something in common with an international student. At least in the beginning, I was very drawn to the other international students…I felt like maybe they could empathise with feeling on the outside in a new place.

Helping students meet like-minded people at the beginning of their student journey can form confidence within a supportive network. Friendships take time, but connections can happen straight away.

In the first four weeks, you can feel that you need to know other people and “ah, this could be my friend or this…” the pressure is so hard. And you always have the pressure, and you are in a new country, a new language, and all is new. And sometimes, the people that you know the very first week are not to same that you call friends in the last part of your Masters. It’s normal, because we are all human and we change.

Belonging is a human necessity, but belonging is ever-changing and developing. For international students and students whose first language isn’t English, language can be a barrier to forming connections at first: students may have a good understanding of English but may not understand slang or be able to keep up with a fast-paced English conversation . Encourage English-speaking students to bear this in mind, to be patient and to be kind.

I think that trying to express your personality or make jokes in a target language, seems impossible at the time.

Solutions and suggestions from our students

International students

Flipping the switch: view English-speaking students as international students and embrace what makes us different

I think having a lot of international students as friends really opened my mind to different cultures and kind of helped me to view uk students as international students in a way, in that we are people who have different cultures. And so maybe instead of focusing on what makes you similar, if you’re embracing what makes you different, that could be your point to starting a conversation with someone, just showing interest in where they from and who they are.

Encourage all students to surround themselves with diversity and find the courage to get involved

Meeting other people whose first language wasn’t English helped me a lot, because I felt more comfortable, because everyone was in the same situation. I think I learned that you could make friends anywhere and kind of find a routine and feel at home anywhere and that it’s not as scary as it seems at first. It’s all about finding the courage to actually get involved in things and getting your own everyday activities in place

First generation students

First Generation students often face different challenges to other students, due to their lack of prior knowledge about the University process, which can distract them from making connections and building friendships. When the time comes to make connections, however, situational contexts can create barriers.

There is just one other and me who are 1st generation and the other three come from very middle class backgrounds, and you can feel that in the house and there is a difference. The other three have very medical backgrounds, whereas I and the other person have a very working class background. We have very different attitudes toward money and living costs (quote from 1st gen student in Pasero 2016 p.13)

Social isolation for first generation students can stem from insecurity, anxiety, and fear of new environments. Ethnic minorities who are first generation students may face racial disparities and discrimination on top of this, leading to further alienation and isolation that directly impacts mental health and confidence. It is important that we inspire 1st generation students to realise they possess an abundance of resilience and courage to begin something completely new, not just for them but for their families too.

Commuter students

Students who Commute often face challenges when making connections and building friendships at university, mainly due to their time restrictions and needing to stick to a schedule. Forming connections and friendships can often appear time-consuming for commuting students.

So, my mind’s already going like a mile-a-minute thinking about how fast I need to walk to be able to make this or to make that. So… instead of me just saying ‘you know what, class is done now. I can go to the gym with my friends,’ or you know ‘now I can go to the study group with my friends at the library that’s going on. I’m focused on all this commuting.

There is a Commuters society at Leeds, this is a society well equipped to support and facilitate forming connections between other commuting students who understand and can relate to these challenges.

We (Commuters’ Society) bring together like-minded commuter students through accessible ‘rush-hour socials’, the aim of which is that every student (no matter their transport arrangements or distance from the centre of Leeds) should be able to attend. We achieve this by removing the focus from alcohol and ensuring events end before around 8pm.

Students with disabilities

Students’ with disabilities sometimes face daily societal bias and discrimination daily, and this can cause our students to retreat and isolate. We must work to change how able-bodied and able-minded students view disabilities.

Salmon (2012) completed a study with teenagers who have disabilities and their friends. The challenges that came up were indicative of larger societal issues in the way we view disabilities:

  • There was an “expectation that their non- or less-disabled friend had caring responsibilities”
  • Disabled students and their friends found themselves ‘resisting stereotypes (such as sacrificing of their own needs by being friends with the person with a disability)
  • Developing friendships with other young people with disabilities became the preferred option as a result, whilst choosing to self-exclude from public spaces” (Salmon, 2012)

Care-leavers and students from low-income backgrounds

Some students face issues of isolation and feelings of ‘other’ within University life, whether that be because of a lack of money, or because of loneliness or problems related to their personal life.

I didn’t have the money to go out… I just made-up things sometimes ‘oh I can’t be bothered. I’ll just stay in my room and stuff

Findings from the K Ellis, C Johnston (2019) Pathways to University from Care: Findings Report One, based on the views and experiences of 234 care experienced students in universities across England and Wales, found that:

  • 27% of care leaver students found the drinking and drug use involved in university social life excessive
  • 41% of students felt different from their peers
  • 55% were not comfortable with sharing their care background
  • However, 70% found making friends easy

Encourage care leaver students to join in with non-drinking societies and work to create a culture within the university of embracing difference.  

Never ask a student to share any information they’re not comfortable sharing.

Report by Hope Hutchinson, as part of a student research experience placement.