By Omid Fotuhi, PhD., Director of Learning Innovation, WGU Labs


Higher education today promises to provide pathways to opportunity through various credentialing and degree programs that will result in a boost of economic prosperity for those who attend. But to reap the full benefits that higher education has to offer, students must complete their education. Access without completion is not equitable.

Too often, however, these promises fall short for the students who are most in need, leaving many from underrepresented groups to question whether higher education was designed for diverse learners like them. Historically, higher education in the United States was designed for a homogenous student body. Today’s higher education landscape – through increasingly diverse and broad – can still feel exclusionary to historically underserved and marginalized groups.

As the new academic year gets underway, it’s crucial that higher education leaders build engaged learning communities where all students belong. Doing so requires intentional effort, humility, and consistent work. The result, however, will be campus communities with engaged students who are more likely to persist through graduation. 

When students, especially those from first-gen and negatively stereotyped groups, step foot on campus and begin their classes, here are three questions that students are likely asking themselves and, importantly, what higher education leaders can do to respond.


1 – “Do I Belong?”

Promoting student belonging is central to the mission of our College Innovation Network group here at WGU Labs. Belonging is central to the student experience and may be the antidote against those negative consequences by buffering students’ mental health and promoting academic engagement, especially for students from underrepresented and first-generation backgrounds.

Early conversations about belonging and belonging uncertainty are critical for shaping student perceptions about their new educational environment. This is commonly thought of as having an “imposter syndrome”, which is often aggravated when you feel like you are the only one feeling this way. 

Therefore, the harmful effects of imposter syndrome or belonging uncertainty can be curtailed when students realize that their uncertainties are (1) commonly shared among many other students; (2) a normal part of the transition, hence not a result of some sort of internal deficit; and (3) that these experiences pass with time. 

Conversations about common experiences that many face when entering college, for example, can equip newcomers with a narrative that opens a person up to stay engaged with the resources and people around them to make those meaningful connections and boost belonging over time. But to have those large effects, we must get the message right early on.


2 – “Can I Do It?

College coursework is challenging for all students at one point or another. What matters in these moments of uncertainty is how students respond to such challenges. Does being challenged mean they can’t do the work, or just need more time, support or resources to do the work.

When working with students being challenged by coursework, faculty and staff should focus on getting their messaging right. This means focusing on processes and opportunities to get on track in courses, rather than prescriptive messaging about the additional hurdles they must overcome to get back in good academic standing. Both approaches are geared toward helping students overcome challenges, but the former avoids a deficit framing that can lessen feelings of belonging.


3 – “ Does it Matter?”

Sometimes, the point of challenging coursework, long nights studying, and years until payoff can be daunting and students may question whether it all matters. These moments are when college leadership is crucial, and the engaged communities leaders strive to build for their students will matter most.

Central to building these communities is listening to the student voice. This may include involving student leaders in the creation of student communities and campus organizations, running student focus groups to understand what assumptions faculty, staff, and leaders may be making about their experiences, or using equity-centered design to ensure all students’ experiences are considered when rolling out new initiatives. The point is that students know best what it is like being a student on your campus, and their experiences and insight can help you build better communities.


As students return to campus for another year, let’s ensure that each one feels they have a place they belong and peers to connect with – their success may depend on it.


The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is on a mission to build learning communities where all students belong. Learn more about our work at