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Exploring the Complexity of First-Year Student Belonging in Higher Education: Familiarity, Interpersonal, and Academic Belonging


Belonging is critical to first-year student success and persistence in higher education. However, differing definitions make it challenging to fully understand why belonging is significant. Foregrounding student voice, this research explored how first-year Australian university students talked about their belonging. Using Kahu and Nelson’s (2018) framework of student engagement as a lens, 18 students were interviewed weekly throughout the year. Students talked about belonging in three distinct but interrelated ways: familiarity, interpersonal belonging, and academic belonging. While all were important for student wellbeing and engagement, academic belonging, students’ sense that university, their discipline, and courses were “right” for them, was critical for perseverance. Unlike interpersonal belonging which tended to build through the year, academic belonging fluctuated for many students. The findings suggest framing belonging merely as about relationships limits understanding of this important construct. Contributing to scholarship by bringing a refreshed perspective to the nuances and complexity of belonging, the research suggests higher education providers need to monitor and foster academic belonging in first-year students.

Published: 2022-07-06
Pages:10 to 20
How to Cite
Kahu, E. R., Ashley, N., & Picton, C. (2022). Exploring the Complexity of First-Year Student Belonging in Higher Education: Familiarity, Interpersonal, and Academic Belonging . Student Success, 13(2), 10-20.

Author Biographies

Massey University
New Zealand New Zealand

Ella Kahu is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Massey Univeristy in Wellington, New Zealand. She also holds an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow position at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Her primary research focus is student experiences in higher education with a particular interest in student engagement. Ella’s conceptual framework of student engagement, developed in 2013 and extended in 2018, is used to inform both research and practice at universities around the world. In her teaching practice, she co-developed and teaches an innovative inter-disciplinary course on identity and citizenship to first-year online Bachelor of Arts students.

Massey University
New Zealand New Zealand

Nicole Ashley is a Tutor and Research Associate in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University, in Auckland of Aotearoa New Zealand. She is currently completing her Master of Arts in Sociology at Massey University. Her research interests include human-nature relations, feminist methodologies, and social inequalities and spaces of justice-making. These interests translate into her teaching practice, where she focuses on generating collective learning spaces that are fundamentally guided by student voice. 

University of the Sunshine Coast
Australia Australia

Cat Picton is a Student Success and Development Coordinator at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her research interests are the influence of student support on the experience of university, academic student success advising, and student engagement. She has been involved in several research projects investigating equity and the Australian regional context of higher education. In her current professional role, Cat is implementing a whole of university, embedded approach to student support focussing on student development of co-curricular skills and competencies.

Open Access Journal
ISSN 2205-0795