Ideally, universities are made up not just of a student ‘body’ but of a student ‘community’. However, rather than assume the existence of a ‘community, this cross-departmental, longitudinal project investigates how students understand and construct their own sense of belonging to, and engagement, with various potential ‘communities’.  Although we are interested in students’ sense of belonging to the College, this study asks students to define those communities that are most important to them, both within and beyond their higher education environment. Initial findings demonstrate that those aspects of belonging and community that are most important to students go beyond the university setting. For example, students also  ‘belong’ to their local, national, political or cultural communities, or to their particular course, department, College society, or profession, as most important to them. While these different senses of belonging often align, they can come into conflict.

 The findings of this study are therefore helping us to understand:

  • the nature and extent of students’ sense of belonging;
  • how this influences  engagement in communities, including academically, socially and politically (Johnson, 2017);
  • the factors influencing students’ sense of belonging and engagement, with a particular interest in the role of gender, socioeconomic background (as indicated by receipt of the means-tested Imperial Bursary), fees status, discipline/department and campus location.

As well as fundamentally improving our empirical and theoretical understanding of students’ sense of belonging, this study also contributes to the ongoing and wide-ranging evaluation of the Learning & Teaching Strategy, which has amongst its aims that students are encouraged and empowered by their studies to adopt an outward-looking perspective when thinking about their place in and contributions to a global community.

Our mixed methods study involves standard social science approaches such as questionnaires and semi-structured, longitudinal interviews, as well as more innovative approaches to capture unique insights (including ‘walking’ and ‘vox pop’ interviews). 

 The data collection for this project is ongoing until January 2021. If you are an Imperial student interested in participating in this research project, please get in touch with the research team.

 Contact Dr Julianne ViolaDr Eliel Cohen