A sense of belonging is important to an institution whether it be familial, professional or academic. To belong makes one feel safe, cared for, welcomed and accepted. To belong could breed confidence and success. To not belong could lead to anger, disillusionment, separation and an uncertain future.

The University of Texas at El Paso recently completed its scheduled New Student Orientation sessions before the start of the 2023 fall semester. They covered many aspects tied to student success, but a main thread throughout involved belonging.

As higher education institutions across the country continue their efforts to boost enrollment, more include a message of belonging, which researchers have found is an important factor to student mental health as well as academic retention, progression and graduation.

Among the hundreds of freshmen-to-be in attendance was Jesus Ortiz Jr., an 18-year-old Riverside High School graduate. The first-generation college student said that he felt overwhelmed by the large campus and the number of new faces.

“I felt out of touch (at the orientation),” Ortiz said as many of his fellow freshmen filed out of UTEP’s Union Building East on Aug. 4, the second of a three-day event. “I don’t feel as if I belong at this point, but I’m a quick learner. I can manage.”

Jesus Ortiz Jr., right, and Faith O. Familua talk about their participation in UTEP’s New Student Orientation activities after an Aug. 4 session in the Tomás Rivera Conference Center. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Ortiz, who already is thinking of changing his major to biology from mechanical engineering, was philosophical about his situation. He said that part of college is learning how to think and act as an adult, so part of his plan is to work with his professors, and participate in class and campus activities.

In May, the journal Science published the results of a 30-minute social-belonging intervention administered online to almost 27,000 freshmen before they started their fall semesters at 22 diverse colleges and universities from around the country. The study found that the intervention increased the first-year completion rates among full-time student participants, especially among those from underrepresented groups. Researchers stressed that the intervention was effective when the institutions offered students the opportunity to belong.

Listening to the New Student Orientation presenters suggest that freshmen eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, and involve themselves in on- and off-campus activities to become part of something bigger than themselves was somewhat familiar to Kristine Velásquez, director of UTEP’s Enrollment Outreach and Strategic Recruitment Initiatives.

Velásquez said she was a nervous and intimidated UTEP freshman in the fall of 2007 as she sat through a similar presentation in the same venue, Magoffin Auditorium. Now she is among the UTEP voices to welcome the students and share the bilingual message of belonging, which the university has promoted for as long as she can remember.

This year’s program included welcomes from UTEP President Heather Wilson, athletics coaches, staff and upperclassmen. The freshmen learned about the different colleges, met with advisers and toured the campus. They heard presentations about community engagement and student support services as well as study abroad opportunities, Greek life, and academic programs that are pathways to medical and legal professions. The goals were to inform, engage and excite the participants.

Kristine Velásquez, director of UTEP’s Enrollment Outreach and Strategic Recruitment Initiatives, is among the university representatives who share the message of “belonging” with incoming freshmen during New Student Orientation activities. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Velásquez said that her office staff treats students as individuals who are seen, heard and valued. While she does not have data on the effectiveness of their methods, she shared anecdotes about how staff worked with students who questioned their ability to succeed at college due to school, home or work issues. Her staff’s suggestions of university resources helped many of them decide to attend UTEP.

The director said the information shared through the New Student Orientation sessions promotes resources and tips that will help the student succeed and feel wanted. Despite working with hundreds of students at each NSO, university representatives try to make the interactions as personal as possible.

“We’re always doing outreach and our message is you belong at this university, and we’re going to help you,” she said.

Gregory M. Walton, the Michael Forman University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and professor of psychology at Stanford University, said that it was important for colleges and universities to go beyond the “you belong” mantra to be effective.

In November 2021, EducationWeek published an article by Walton, “Stop Telling Students, ‘You Belong.’” In it, he warned that repeating the same message too often could make students, especially those from underrepresented groups, doubt its sincerity. He said the message should be that belonging concerns are normal, that everyone has them to some degree, and that they will fade over time.

“It’s not our job to tell students how they feel,” Walton wrote in the article. “It is our job to create ways of thinking, cultures, and personal relationships that make school a place of genuine belonging.”

One of the main threads that run through UTEP’s New Student Orientation sessions is “belonging.” (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

To that point, UTEP’s Entering Student Experience is involved in several activities that model the message of belonging to students. One is UTEP Prep, which includes coursework, tutoring, study assistance and weekly workshops about student success. Another is the MDM summer math program, which helps underprepared students to be college-ready for the fall.

The ESE also oversees the University 1301 sections that have a core principle of belonging. For those who fail UNIV 1301, the university offers a UNIV recovery section as part of UTEP Promote, a series of summer workshops to help students transition to their sophomore year. The recovery section helps students understand why they failed and how to change their academic trajectory.

Faith O. Familua, an El Pasoan who graduated from a private boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, said she received a lot of information and met a lot of good people during her orientation. She felt a strong sense of belonging and considered that important.

Familua said that, with few exceptions, she felt comfortable at her high school, but did not always have the same positive experience at El Paso schools. The psychology major said she hoped to fit in at UTEP and make the most out of this year.

“I’ve struggled with feeling a sense of belonging at school before and it’s never a good feeling,” Familua said.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus. He has written on military and higher education issues in El Paso for more than 30 years.