Sense of belonging vital for students

By Robert Keyes

A New Hampshire college gives students a community, even during the pandemic

The pandemic has changed the college experience at every level of higher education, and especially among community colleges, where connections among students and faculty are the backbone of a successful college experience.

Over the past two years, many of the traditional college experiences – social gatherings, public lectures and events and community outings – have gone virtual, been canceled or trimmed back.

But throughout the pandemic and with the return of limited in-person learning, Great Bay Community College in New Hampshire has been helping students retain their connections to each other and to the school by paying attention to individual student needs in the classroom, in the community, and at home.

“We are thrilled to have students back on campus and we are transitioning to more in-person engagement opportunities with our students,” said Brittanie Mulkigian, director of student life at Great Bay. “Offering activities on campus as well as encouraging students to take their online classes on campus, revives the sense of community amongst our students and allows us to engage with students so we can better understand their needs in and outside of the classroom.”

A sense of belonging is foundational to academic success, according to research. Students who feel they belong are more likely to stick with their studies, according to a 2019 study in Educational Researcher, an academic journal. It is especially important among students who are uncertain they belong under the best circumstances – non-traditional students, first-generation students and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

‘Communal vibe’

Beyond helping students feel comfortable with their education, Great Bay works with students to feel comfortable in the community and at home, by helping them find affordable housing, arranging transportation and distributing care packages of food and personal-care items to ensure their basic needs are being met.

“We know that student success begins at home,” Mulkigian said. “If they are comfortable at home and if we can play a role in making sure they are, students will feel a greater sense of belonging on campus and a greater sense of community and connection to the college.”

Phil Reid of Rochester had spent more than a decade working mostly in restaurants and the food industry, in New Hampshire and on the West Coast, when he enrolled at Great Bay in 2021 to study cyber security. “The pandemic helped me realize I wasn’t satisfied with my day-to-day life,” said Reid, 34. “Great Bay gave me the opportunity to pivot.”

He chose cybersecurity because of the professional opportunities of the field. He chose Great Bay because it was close to home, convenient, and comfortable. A friend who was taking IT classes touted the school to Reid.

“Great Bay has been very supportive,” he said. “That first semester, I was just getting my feet wet, and some classes were difficult, but the teachers are very easy to reach out to and they are very responsive. The communication has been great.”

He got all A’s his first semester and made the President’s List, affirming his decision to change careers. Reid recently began working full time in the Rochester school system as a computer specialist. Great Bay supported him in his job search while also supporting him in his studies.

“It’s not easy to do full-time school and full-time work and balance your life,” he said. “But I have a great community around me at home and at Great Bay. I feel like the people at school are looking out for my best interests and are committed to seeing me succeed.”

Zoe Purdie started her college education at an out-of-state school before she came home to New Hampshire. The first thing she noticed about Great Bay, she said, was that her teachers cared about her well-being. “When I started booking my classes here, my teacher reached out to me and asked, ‘How is everything going? Are you OK?’ Nobody said anything like that at the other school,” she said.

That lack of support led to her downfall and brought her home to New Hampshire. She has thrived with the small classes and personal attention at Great Bay. Purdie described the differences as “Great Bay’s communal vibe.”

There’s more to the story! Get more student insight here.

Robert Keyes

is a freelance contributor at Great Bay Community College in New Hampshire.