Recent studies in education psychology have identified reduced sense of social belonging as a potential barrier to minority students succeeding in STEM courses. Social belonging is the degree to which students feel connected to their community, whether that community refers to the classroom, the institution at large, or even the field of study. The level of ‘connection’ felt can be affected by the degree to which there is shared cultural experiences. If an individual does not feel connected to his or her community, s/he may be less likely to engage in the daily activities necessary for success in that area. Studies on social belonging have focused on the alienating natures of the physical environment and the conventional power structures that are inherent in higher education. In this study our goal was to provide a platform for the ‘student voice’ on this issue. We aimed to answer the question: How do both minority and non-minority students perceive sense of belonging at a large, public research institution? We addressed this questions by conducting one hour-long interviews of 30 minority students and 30 non-minority students who major in STEM disciplines, and analyzed transcripts from those interviews using a quantitative thematic and ethnographic approach.
Males of color in our study were more likely to report a reduced sense of belonging on the campus, and relied on minority-serving student groups or perceived safe spaces for their socialization. Both males and females of color detailed feelings of alienation in STEM courses and departments, but female were less likely to see these feelings as an actual barrier to their social and academic success on campus. White students felt more so than students of color that the institution was going above and beyond to address sense of belonging on campus. Both groups typically only made close friends within their own ethnicity. Our results suggest that as perceived by students of color, infrastructure within the university developed to promote belonging may serve to create safe spaces, but may not translate to a general feeling of belonging to the STEM classrooms or the institution. Students of color also reported thinking of leaving a STEM major because of a perceived more welcoming environment in non-STEM majors. These results should provide food for thought for STEM instructors and administrators with respect to the intentional ways in which we may need to address social belonging in STEM majors, and university campuses in general.