Teaching the Whole Student: College Belonging Is a Gift, Not an Accomplishment

  • Lisa Nunn, PhD University of San Diego


SESSION LOCATION: Dewberry Hall (Ground Floor of the Johnson Center), Fairfax Campus


Students who have a sense of belonging on campus fare better in a range of ways including: retention rates, graduation rates, and general wellbeing. At many universities underrepresented students such as first-generation students and students of color are less likely to feel that they belong. Drawing on research from first-year students at two residential universities, this keynote examines common, yet misguided strategies that universities make to help their students develop a sense of belonging. By paying attention to a fundamental dynamic of belonging that is often neglected: that belonging cannot be accomplished through oneâs own will or efforts, we can see more clearly how we can create an environment in which students can thrive and feel they belong.

Author Biography

Lisa Nunn, PhD, University of San Diego

Lisa Nunn is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego.

Professor Nunn earned her B.A. in Literature and Theater from Whittier College in 1997. She earned her M.A. in Sociology in 2005 and her Ph.D. in Sociology in 2009 from the University of California, San Diego.

Changemaking is near and dear to me. I spent the two years after I graduated college in the Peace Corps in Latvia, which set the foundation for the changemaking work that I do now including every summer when Professor Mike Williams and I take USD students to do community engagement in Makuleke Village in South Africa. I also work on issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice here on campus, as well as faculty development and mentoring. Most of all, I am devoted to first-year students. I am on the leadership team for the Collaborate living, learning community for first year students, which means that I teach and advise Collaborate students and I facilitate faculty engagement in the program.

I am the editor of a book series with Rutgers University Press, Critical Issues in American Education, and I serve in the leadership of the Sociology of Education Association, in addition to being an active member of the American Sociological Association.

My scholarship centers on studentsâ experiences, studentsâ identities, and studentsâ academic success and overall wellbeing. My current research follows first-year college students to see how they navigate their new campus homes and what kinds of obstacles they face to developing a sense of belonging there. As a sociologist, I care deeply about communities and how they function, and school communities are important parts of all of our lives as we grow up. I am a cultural sociologist and an organizations scholar, so I approach research questions about student belonging by looking at the role each university plays in terms of the programs and resources it provides to new students as well as the overall campus culture that the school fosters. I also systematically interview students to find out what their experiences are like, whether those school programs and resources help them, and what they do when the find themselves struggling.

I am particularly interested in first-generation college students, those for whom neither parent has a 4-year degree. When first-generation students succeed in college it is a sign that higher education is doing something right, something that benefits our entire society by serving as an engine of upward social mobility.

9:00am-10:15am KEYNOTE ADDRESS