Creating a Culture of Support and Belonging

Higher education leaders can have a surprisingly large impact on the culture of the student body.

My friend learned this lesson when he led a science summer camp for middle schoolers at Johns Hopkins. He took in a new cohort every week, providing ample room for social experimentation. His most effective culture-shaping tactic was surprisingly simple.

During his opening speech, he stood at the podium and declared how the campers would treat each other. He’d say things like “this is going to be the most supportive group you’ve ever been a part of” … “this is one of the smartest and nicest groups of people you’ll be around.” Students subconsciously worked to live up to these expectations in order to fit in. It worked.

Of course, this strategy is not a panacea. My point is that we can socially engineer belonging and inclusion. At the college where I work, I was tasked to improve our student body’s belonging and inclusion score (at the time, students rated the school an average of 3.4 out of 5). Here are the 9 things that we did at Make School to improve the metric …

Social Engineering of Culture:

  • Admissions: we declared our culture on our website. This attracts students inclined to actively participate in the culture.
  • Admissions: our marketing materials reminded prospective students of the culture and signals what “fitting in” looks like.
  • Classroom: instructors and students kept a public tally on every time a student helps one of their peers. This creates a reputation incentive for altruistic behavior.
  • Classroom: we structured more “pair programming” activities into class in which two students code one project together at the same time. We ensured the students followed principles of effective collaboration by having them answer discussion questions on their work style before starting their project.
  • Classroom: we ended each class with students giving “shout out” acknowledgements to their peers. Each celebration contributes to our culture
  • Schoolwide: we hosted quarterly focus groups of students to discuss ways that the school fails to create a sense of belonging and ideas for improvements. We collaborate with the student council on these initiatives.
  • Schoolwide: we collect stories of students helping each other and include them in our newsletter (similar to shout outs). This allows our administration to reinforce the cultural values of the school.
  • Orientation: we explained the science of the protege effect and how teaching others improves your own understanding. This helps students realize that helping others is in their own self interest.
  • Orientation: we seeded vulnerable conversations so that students felt like they could open up about hardships. We led an activity where staff were vulnerable and shared their failures, which led students to open up and feel fully “seen.” This signals that it is valuable and okay to share your challenges and get support.

It’s no wonder students eventually rated our community above a 4.2/5 on a sense of belonging and inclusion — even during the pandemic!

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