New Research Shows Power of Hope and Belonging amid Great Pandemic for Distressed Communities
By: Virginia Union University, Center for HBCUs
"As I argue in my published scholarship on the topic, I think we have underestimated the power, potential, and potency of sense of belonging and the role it plays in human existence, flourishing, and thriving particularly among historically underrepresented and minoritized populations in education," says Strayhorn, a tenured full professor in the Evelyn Reid Syphax School of Education at Virginia Union University, where he also serves as Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Director of the Center for the Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) founded by VUU's President, Dr. Hakim J. Lucas.
"Sense of belonging is essential to educational success and human thriving. Students who report strong bonds of friendship with peers, circles of support from faculty and staff, and a clear ethos around membership and being part of the learning community in classrooms, schools, or colleges have better attendance, higher grades, greater retention and graduation rates, hope for the future, and they even become engaged and generous alumni," Strayhorn said drawing on results from his recent studies.
Strayhorn leads several active projects within the Center's lab focusing on sense of belonging. He is principal investigator of a multi-year study funded, in part, by the Palmer Grant Program exploring the role of faith and hope in individual and collective sense of belonging among distressed and urban communities. Using a blend of online surveys, computer adaptive systems, and videoconferenced focus groups with educators, clergy, and community leaders, Strayhorn's team is learning about effective community-based interventions, religion and resilience, as well as the efficacy of micromessaging as an low-cost, high-impact tool for boosting belonging and hope in distressed communities facing adversity.
"The research literature is replete with references to 'ACE' typically defined as adverse childhood experiences and I'm exploring these days a new 'ACE' referring to 'after-COVID experiences' and how individuals and communities experience life in the new normal," Strayhorn explained. "It's clear that computer-mediated micromessaging and brief web videos can pack a punch in terms of helping students keep their eye on future goals, chart plans for achieving them, and staying optimistic even in the face of academic setbacks and social adversity like losing a loved one to COVID. Hope makes belonging possible and the reverse is also true."
"But it's not about people 'finding' a sense of belonging on their own, these current projects direct attention to the responsibility of institutions and institutional agents like administrators, faculty, staff, politicians, and Board members to create the conditions and circumstances necessary for belonging...and we do that through our curriculum, employment practices, reward structures, budget allocations, and even COVID-19 policies governing repopulation of campus, physical distancing, mask mandates, and universal access points."
"What's most exciting for me, apart from the exciting research and new scientific discoveries about belonging, is the fact that it's proving to be such a key element for success and thriving of faculty, staff, and students in higher education and beyond," Strayhorn explained. "Any overemphasis on belonging in a single context or timepoint would be a mistake; we must not lose sight of the structural, systemic, environmental, and historical barriers and forces that conspire to reduce, if not remove, one's sense of belonging...barriers like implicit bias, anti-Black racism, lack of visible role models, cultural distance, poverty, to name a few."