How do social belonging and peer friendships develop for diverse first-generation college students?

Salusky, I., Monjaras-Gaytan, L., Ulerio, G., Forbes, N., Perron, G., & Raposa, E. (2022). The formation and role of social belonging in on-campus integration of diverse first-generation college students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 15210251221092708.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • ​​First-generation college students (FGCS) are less likely to obtain their degrees. Even if FGCS earn their degrees, roughly half graduate within six years.
  • Although there is quantitative research that examines sense of belonging among underrepresented groups, there’s still a lack of research that intersectionally assesses FGCS’ academic trajectories.
  • This qualitative study explores how social belonging and peer friendships evolved over time for diverse FGCS.
  • Many participants were open and optimistic about developing on-campus social relationships before the school year.
  • Despite this finding, experiences and perceptions varied among FGCS once classes started.
  • Four qualitative themes:
    • Higher education provides a cultural learning environment.
    • Multiple factors create challenges to relationship building.
    • Extreme value differences create hard limits around friendships.
    • Within-group friendships provide social and psychological value.
  • While some FGCS (primarily White FGCS) reached their goals, a majority of FGCS of color felt the lack of campus diversity and perceived differences in salient identities made it difficult for them to befriend other peers of diverse backgrounds.
  • Colleges and universities need to recognize how intersectional identities can affect FGCS’ experiences with developing a sense of social belonging and campus relationships.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

First-generation college students (FGCS) experience high rates of attrition compared to continuing generation college students. FGCS frequently identify with several other historically marginalized identities on college campuses. The development of a sense of belonging on-campus is one of the main drivers of retention. The current study examines how sense of belonging on-campus develops during the first-year of college for different FGCS and how attitudes about on-campus relationships evolve over time. Thirteen participants were interviewed at three time points during their first year of college. Grounded theory analysis revealed four themes: 1) higher education provides a cultural learning environment; 2) multiple factors create challenges to relationship building; 3) extreme value differences create hard limits around friendships; and 4) within group friendships provide social and psychological value. Findings extend the current literature on the importance of social belonging for retention of diverse FGCS and highlight the importance of intersectionality in this work.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

A sense of belonging on campus has repeatedly been linked to academic outcomes and retention within higher education, particularly for groups from underrepresented backgrounds. Yet, to date, research has not examined how FGCS with different identities develop on-campus friendships–a key support for developing a sense of belonging. Moreover, it is unclear how FGCS attitudes about on-campus friendships evolve over time and whether intersectional identities impact attitudes about on-campus friendships beyond FGCS status. Findings from the current study suggest that some aspects of friendship formation appear to be consistent across diverse FGCS, such as an expressed openness to developing on-campus friendships prior to arrival on campus, but that attitudes and experiences with friendship formation vary significantly for FGCS with different intersecting identities that are minoritized on campus.

Nearly all FGCS participants in our study, regardless of background, expressed an interest in relationship-building with peers from different backgrounds and saw it as a learning opportunity as they prepared to enter college. This represents one universal attitude regarding friendships within the study sample. This is consistent with research on the central processes of exploration and commitment inherent to identity formation during late adolescence and young adulthood (Phinney & Alipuria, 1990). In line with existing research on identity development, participants discussed exploring peers’ identities as a way to evaluate their own pre-existing beliefs and potentially refine or change them–a necessary component of healthy and adaptive identity development (Bosma & Kunnen, 2001; Luyckx et al., 2006). College provides an ideal environment for such exploration, not only because identity development is explicitly encouraged, but also because higher education can offers a heterogeneous setting relative to the home communities in which some college students were raised (Bosma & Kunnen, 2001).

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