What does it mean to belong? Thoughts on Lisa Nunn’s College Belonging

I wish I could remember how College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life, by Lisa Nunn, made it onto my ever-growing reading pile. (If you were the one who recommended it to me, a very big thank you and apology for not giving you the credit you deserve here!) I started reading it earlier this month, both in preparation to teach my first-year seminar and more broadly as I think about DEI issues at Carleton and within STEM at Carleton specifically.

The book focuses on in-depth interviews that Nunn conducted with a diverse set of students, both continuing-generation and first-generation, on two different California college campuses — a large public school and a smaller private school — over their first two years. The book centers on questions of how, and whether, students find their places at their institutions, and how institutions foster, and fail to foster, belonging among their students. It presents first-person accounts of how students “figure out” college, particularly in their first year as they adjust, make friends, and hone in on their academic major. It’s a compelling account of the ways institutions both serve and fail to serve their students.

I recommend this book, particularly if you find yourself teaching or advising first-year and/or first-generation students. Rather than providing a comprehensive review, I wanted to highlight a couple of points I’m taking away from the book.

“Belonging” is complicated.

Nunn breaks down belonging into three areas:

  1. Academic belonging: you feel confident and comfortable in your courses, you are adequately prepared and appropriately challenged, and you feel empowered to utilize resources like tutoring, office hours, and writing assistance.
  2. Social belonging: you have people you call friends, you are socially connected to one or more groups on campus.
  3. Campus-community belonging: you feel “at home” on campus, and campus reflects your identity(ies) and preferences.

While students seek out belonging on their campuses, the institution also needs to offer belonging to its students. This is particularly true for students from traditionally excluded groups, whose experiences, identities, and preferences are less likely to be reflected in campus culture. I kept thinking of the phrase “death by a thousand paper cuts” while reading this book, because of example after example of seemingly small things that add up to a big ol’ “you don’t belong here” vibe. What snacks are offered for sale at snack bars? Are intro-level courses pitched towards people new to the material or as a review of what students “should have learned in high school”? Where is the academic support center, or any of the cultural centers, located — central to campus, or on the outskirts? Which student organizations receive the most focus, or funding? Details matter, and the institution has a responsibility beyond “welcome, here’s a list of clubs, here is a small group of fellow students you should get to know well, good luck, you’re on your own!” in offering belonging to its students.

We spent a lot of time last year within the STEM Board delving into different aspects of the student experience. We used the ever-popular “hidden curriculum” terminology in our discussions, but I now realize that what we were really doing was exploring how we do and do not offer belonging in to the students who show up in our classrooms. (And, by extension, to the students who never show up in our classrooms.) This book filled in some much-needed context for me, such that I feel more confident leading and directing these discussions, as we move from “what did we learn?” to “now what can we do?”.

I’m also thinking more carefully about the ways I invite and fail to invite students fully into my classroom, and department, communities. What hidden messages do I send? How can I foster trust in my students around my invitations into the community? What barriers do I not see, that I can work to break down? (And how might this work be hampered by the disruption of an ongoing global pandemic?)

Race frames and “White*ness”

Nunn devotes two chapters to ethnoracial diversity and how it plays out in students’ sense of belonging. There were two particularly interesting aspects to this section of the book. One was the presentation of three of Natasha Warikoo’s “race frames”, or ways of thinking around the intersections of race and success:

  • Colorblindness frame: “success is completely due to individual effort; there is no social or societal aspect to whether someone is successful or not.”
  • Diversity frame: “diversity is desirable to the extent that it culturally and intellectually enriches me.”
  • Power-analysis frame: “power differentials exist between ethnoracial groups because of how society is structured.”

These frames helped me contextualize some of my own observations and experiences within DEI discussions and work, particularly around the insistence on “niceness” and “civility” and the reluctance to go to uncomfortable places in discussions around race and identity. I think this will help me more effectively challenge students, and colleagues, and myself, to examine their current frames (likely to be colorblindness or diversity) and their engagement in race and “meritocracy” discussions.

The other interesting and new-to-me aspect was the idea of White*ness. White*ness indicates the adoption of a primarily or fully White identity (cultural or otherwise) in an individual with multiple ethnoracial identities — biracial or multi-racial students, for example. Particularly, if a White* student is White-passing, their sense of belonging, and the extent to which belonging is offered to them, mimics that of White students much more closely than that of non-White students. Nunn shares a stark example illustrating how including White* students as part of non-White demographics can provide a skewed picture of how well an institution is serving students from traditionally excluded groups. As I read this part of the book, I kept thinking back to various discussions around numbers and “counting” over the years: who are we counting / not counting? should this group be included in our count? what potential insights do our aggregated “small numbers” hide? I appreciate that I now have better language to use when talking about and thinking about measuring the student (and faculty / staff) experience.


I sense that College Belonging is one of those books I’ll revisit from time to time. It’s given me quite a bit to think about in my dual roles as an instructor and as a campus leader, in terms of my / our responsibilities and practices in fostering and offering belonging. It’s introduced me to language and frameworks that will enhance how I engage in discussions with others around what it means to create an inclusive campus. And it’s given me additional perspective on some of my students’ experiences as they navigate Carleton. I look forward to translating what I’ve learned from this book into my work on campus and in the classroom.


What I’m reading: I just finished Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. I can’t stop thinking about it! Incredible storytelling.

What I’m listening to: The Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (most recently, Episode 374 featuring James Lang talking about the 2nd edition of Small Teaching)