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Climate advisory - Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

 April 13, 2020
#CA-2020-03

by Aashir Nasim, Ph.D.
Vice President, Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success
Director and Professor, Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation

STUDENTS’ BELONGINGNESS

The April 13, 2020 Climate Advisory (#CA-2020-03) is based on Climatext data collected on April 9, 2020 from a representative sample of VCU students. VCU students responded to the prompt "Hi! We realize that remote instruction has its pros and cons. How are you feeling about your sense of connection to campus during this time?" A total of 245 students, or 40.6% of the total sampling population, responded within 24-hours. Student sentiment scores can range from -1.00 (negative) to +1.00 (positive). Both actual and adjusted (re-coded) sentiment scores are presented in the summary of the findings. VCU senior administrators, deans and chairs are asked to consider these findings in their decisioning processes about remote instruction and their plans for campus recovery.

Overall. Students’ sense of belongingness or social connectedness is defined as a "subjective sense of overall fit within the university and the perception that [students] are personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others at the university." Social connectedness is highly predictive of student persistence and retention. At VCU, following three weeks of remote instruction, students expressed mixed to somewhat positive sentiment (+0.106; +0.053 adjusted) about their sense of belongingness or social connectedness to campus. Students who are first generation, on-campus residents and undergraduates felt significantly less connected to campus than their co-evals. There were also notable within-group differences for on-campus residents based on their assigned residence hall and undergraduates based on their degree or major program of study.

  • First Generation. Following three weeks of remote instruction, first generation students (+0.036; -0.037 adjusted) reported feeling significantly less connected to campus than legacy or multi-generational students (+0.125; +0.077 adjusted). First generation students’ lowered sense of connectedness seemed to be related to their disappointment in not having access to the built environment. The built environment is defined as constructed places and spaces that afford access to resources; provide accommodation and organization of daily activities; and, inspire and promote human activity, relational and social interaction, mental and physical health, and general well-being.

    A first-generation, senior, music major texted "I have no connection to campus. And the online resources being provided as a defense to refuse refunds (gym/library/activity) are inadequate and a cop-out." In fact, it appears that students’ frustration about tuition and fee credits and refunds had little to do with whether they still had access to the actual resource during remote instruction (e.g., computer programs and online textbooks from the library). To our students, VCU’s currency or value rested upon students’ ability to access these resources within the built environment. For instance, a first generation, sophomore, biology major texted ""I feel like I don’t have very much connection to campus at all. I’m able to do classes and keep in touch with clubs and friends, but it’s not nearly the same as being on campus." Another first-generation sophomore texted "I feel pretty disconnected to the campus. Being an art major, remote instruction is pretty hard when you have no access to the computer labs or any equipment. Like it doesn’t feel like vcu anymore. It feels like an ongoing online simulation." Their sentiment was shared by another first-generation student, Art History major, "I think that staff and students are making a tremendous effort but I feel extremely cut off from campus. while i still have access to classes and some online resources, the physical campus is what makes vcu feel like home and i don’t feel [that] at all right now."

    The accommodation and organization of daily activities within the built environment, especially those centered on interpersonal relationships, seemed to take on added significance for first-generation students. A first-generation, junior, Business major texted "Not being on campus definitely makes working in school work harder. It’s hard to break the routine we had going to do something entirely new." A first-generation sophomore replied, "I don’t even feel like a VCU student. That’s how disconnected I feel from everything. I miss being a part of student life on campus." Another sophomore, on-campus resident stated, "I feel very disconnected from campus. Clubs aren’t working and my friends feel too depressed about the amount of online work they have to hang out." A first-generation Honors College student texted "My sense of connection has decreased a lot since leaving. I am very involved on campus in clubs and activities and now I can’t do them."

    Other first-generation students expressed a strong sentimental value for VCU’s built environment and its interconnectedness to the city. A first-generation senior wrote "…I feel very connected to the staff but I don’t feel connected to all my friends and to the Richmond environment." A first generation, exploration student texted, "I do miss all the vegan restaurants near campus. Now that I am home I have to start cooking again which can be hard if you’re as lazy as me. Miss those takeouts tbh (to be honest)." Indeed, VCU’s urban environment and its related affordances such as modes of access to friends and restaurants seemed to serve a unique role in the daily living of first-generation students.

  • On-Campus Residents. During a pilot administration of Climatext on January 29, 2020, a total of 295 students responded to the prompt "Welcome to VCU Universe! How does it feel to be a VCU student today?". The overall sentiment score was moderately positive (+0.349), with on-campus residents (+0.386) reporting a greater sense of belonging to VCU than off-campus residents (+0.324). Thus, it was determined then that the built environment for on-campus residents may factor into students’ sense of belongingness or connectedness in ways not realized for off-campus residents.

    The university’s transition to remote instruction fundamentally altered the built environment for on-campus residents. During the most recent administration of Climatext, on-campus residents (+0.051; -0.023 adjusted) reported feeling significantly less connected to VCU than off-campus residents (+0.142; +0.102 adjusted). A sophomore, Brandt Hall resident texted "I don’t feel connected to campus at all, I feel as if there’s no way to truly feel like a VCU student when the only way that you are is through online lectures and activities. It feels like I should’ve just gone to community college in a sense." Admittedly, it is difficult to compare sentiment scores across administration dates due to different prompts. However, both prompts provide insight on changes to the built environment during the pandemic, which seem differentially impactful for on-campus residents’ sense of connection compared to off-campus residents. This was especially true for first-generation on-campus residents (-0.045, adjusted). A first-generation freshman student residing in Gladding Residence Center responded "I feel kind of disconnected from the university to be honest, not being on-campus makes me feel a little bit less motivated and less like I’m actually *in* college."

    On-campus students’ sense of belongingness also seemed to vary (although not significantly so) across residence halls. For some residence halls (with at least five students reporting) such as Cary & Belvidere Apartment residents (+0.325; +0.193, adjusted), West Grace North (+0.119; +0.134, adjusted), and West Grace South (+0.122; +0.122, adjusted), student residents reported a higher sense of connectedness than their coevals in other resident halls. A Cary & Belvidere Apartment resident reported "The connection with campus is strained yet still present; Professors are trying their best to make everything work but it’s not quite the same feel and doesn’t feel like I’m getting the same experience." A senior West Grace resident wrote "Overall it’s been an adjustment, but I appreciate the flexibility of my professors. I don’t necessarily feel connected to the campus itself, but I’m still engaged with the coursework and my professors." Importantly, this finding does not support a main effect of living in a particular resident hall. Despite living in the same residence halls, students do not refer to the hall as the source of connectedness.  That is, it does not appear these students’ sentiment scores can be attributed to, for instance, virtual activities that are specific to their residence halls and thereby promote their sense of belongingness or connectedness to VCU over-and-beyond their peers in other residence halls. Rather, it appears that faculty, in particular those who are accommodating to a student's academic needs, are helping to mitigate the negative impact of the residential transition for these students.

    That said, it is possible to attribute specific activities or events to sentiment expressed by Honors College residents. Honors College residents (-0.066; -0.066, adjusted) reported less connectedness to campus than students living in other residence halls. One Honors College resident highlighted previously known issues, "i was asked not to return to my dorm, and all my belongings were removed from my dorm room without permission or notification, so my connection to campus is at an all time low." But, somewhat surprisingly, there were very few comments related to this previous issue, which may speak to the effectiveness of the Honors College town hall meeting conducted by the Honors College interim dean, the virtual town hall meeting between VCU senior administrators with Student Power @ VCU, and more targeted communications to Honors College students during the past several weeks from Student Affairs, University Relations, and elsewhere. Other Honors College residents expressed concerns related to prioritizing and being prioritized. A junior Honors College resident with a 4.0 GPA commented "I feel mostly disconnected from campus now. I’m focused more on spending time with family than doing schoolwork, even though I’m still getting my work done." A sophomore Honors College resident texted "It’s very difficult not being physically there. We may be connected digitally, but digital connection is very different from what we are used to."

  • Undergraduate Students. VCU undergraduate students (+0.094; +0.024, adjusted) reported feeling significantly less connected to campus than graduate and professional students (+0.207; +0.172, adjusted), however this finding was due primarily to differences in the average age of students. Importantly, undergraduate students’ sense of belongingness or connectedness to VCU seemed to vary by their degree program or major. As noted above, faculty accommodations, engagement and flexibility seem to influence students’ connectedness to campus, even during remote instruction. It appears that students enrolled in some degree programs have maintained a moderately strong sense of connectedness to VCU (see below table).

    Degree by program chart to complement climate advisory


    While it is difficult to attribute this finding to any one academic unit or program (e.g., students may be taking courses not in their major area this semester), it does shed light on the role of faculty in promoting and sustaining student’s connectedness during the pandemic. Faculty engagement likely is the most influential factor in determining student retention at this point.

About Climatext. VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) administers Climatext as part of the university’s proactive monitoring and response plan to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Climatext assesses student sentiment resulting from their information exposure and experiences related to COVID-19. Sentiment scores range from negative-to neutral (-1.00 to 0.00) and from neutral-to-positive (0.00 to +1.00). Climatext produces a real-time data summary for the general student population as well as student subpopulations. Data are collected and coded using proprietary software conceptualized and developed by Sam Yerkes, Jim Yucha, and Aashir Nasim. Results are used to inform the university’s strategic communications efforts and support services that address student needs.