Student Sense of Belonging at Georgetown: First Generation Undergraduate Student Experiences

Georgetown University is committed to a whole-institution approach to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are systematically examining academic, financial, social, and structural barriers that affect student success so that we can design evidence-driven policies to create a more equitable and inclusive campus. As part of this work, The Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education – working in partnership with the Georgetown Scholars Program and the Community Scholars Program – conducted a study in spring 2019 on attitudes of belonging among first-generation undergraduate students.

We used SenseMaker, a narrative-based research tool, allowing for a rich, mixed-methods approach to understanding complex issues inherent in students’ sense of belonging. We also conducted a linguistic analysis to interpret language nuances in the shared narratives that revealed more about student perceptions. Eighty-six first-generation undergraduate students responded to the survey, yielding 11% response rate. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Early experiences have long-term impact on students’ sense of belonging. 83% of student respondents recounted experiences that occurred in their first two years at Georgetown.
  • The majority of narratives convey a sense of displacement. 52% were identified as contributing to feelings of displacement, while 27% were accounts of belongingness.
  • Transitional accounts illustrate the fluidity of belonging. 21% of narratives were identified as transitional accounts where respondents shifted from feelings of belonging to displacement or vice versa. 
  • Faculty and classrooms pose challenges to a sense of belonging. 60% of the incidents focusing on classroom experiences contributed to a feeling of displacement.
  • Social settings and peer groups are common situations that pose challenges to students’ sense of belonging. 59% of all stories shared revolved around peer groups. Students report overwhelming alienation from Georgetown peers who don’t identify as first-gen/low-income. 
  • Perceived ‘fit’ with the campus climate strongly influence students’ sense of belonging. 53% of student respondents indicated that at the time of their story, campus culture felt “individualistic” with little help to navigate unfamiliar traditions and spaces.
  • Institutionalized support networks, like Georgetown Scholars Program, contribute positively to students’ sense of belonging. 62% of narratives set in institutionalized support networks conveyed situations in which respondents felt a positive sense of belonging, while 14% conveyed feelings of displacement. Members of GSP are more likely to report support from Georgetown students who also identify as first-gen/low-income than students who aren’t members of GSP. 

The findings of this study suggest specific campus policy recommendations and contribute to the broader national conversations about undergraduate students’ experiences of belonging. Campus recommendations include, but not limited to, enhanced support for the Office of Student Equity and Inclusion (OSEI) to reach more students on the Georgetown campus and increased support for staff and faculty to engage with students’ lived experiences.


Molly Morrison: Associate Director for Community Engagement for The Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education 

Toddchelle Young: Director of Research for The Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education 

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