Westmont Magazine Enhancing a Sense of Belonging

Westmont seeks to promote the well-being of its students. But what exactly does that mean? Edee Schulze, vice president for student life, and her staff have launched an initiative to better define and enhance well-being for all students on campus.

The college’s current strategic map includes two items related to well-being:

Ø    Increase the sense of belonging among students of color and first-generation students.

Ø    Maximize the sense of belonging, support and success for all students.

Time-lapse photo of students going into Murchison Gym for Chapel

In November 2020, Westmont administered the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment, and 291 students responded to all or part of the survey. This instrument measures well-being annually on a national scale. It helps institutions develop targeted, effective and evidence-based programming to support student well-being.

Created specifically for undergraduate students in early adulthood, the assessment determines whether they’re well and have developed the skills, resources and conditions they need to be well. Students receive feedback about their responses, which engages them with the survey and provides immediate tools for improvement.

The summary of students’ responses provides data regarding out­comes and pathways, which can be internal (values, beliefs, knowl­edge, emotional reactions and social and behavioral skills) as well as external (money, social support, culture). Colleges can then develop programs to enhance specific pathways identified in the assessment.

“According to the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment, our students are doing better than our comparison group in many categories,” Schulze says. “But we still have work to do to improve a sense of belonging and well-being. We put priority on students growing in spiritual health and maturity, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies and willingness to draw on resources to strengthen their well-being.”

In nearly every measurement, Westmont students scored better than all students at other colleges. For example, their academic engagement averaged +4.65, positive coping +2.62, activity engagement +2.61, life satisfaction +2.32, meaning +2.14, and happiness +1.90. They were less likely to be anxious (-1.73), depressed (-1.21) or lonely (-0.49).

In spring 2022, Student Life conducted its own review of well-being programs, holding focus groups with more than 80 professors, students and staff members. Faculty from three Christian colleges and two from Westmont led this effort, which reached out to specific groups of students, such as those using Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

The review team found that Westmont emphasizes connections within small groups, which support social, emotional and spiritual well-being. They noted shared ownership of student well-being at all levels of the institution. They praised numerous programs and initiatives, such as the Center for Student Success, the developing Parent Academy (see story on page 21), CAPS and Intercultural Programs. Their recommendations included developing a common, campus-wide definition of student well-being. With so many opportunities for involvement, Westmont students may overcommit, put pressure on themselves and thus increase their anxiety. So the team encouraged programs that help them better manage their busy schedules and stress. They also recommended engaging and listening to students of color to help them feel like they belong — and educating white students about cultural differences. Waiting lists at CAPS and other support services create barriers to well-being. Fortunately, CAPS has received a grant, which allows the college to provide more therapeutic support, eliminating the waiting list there. Finally, the team says students want to build better skills for engaging in challenging conversations.

Based on the Wake Forest Assessment and the review of well-being programs, Student Life created next steps to implement recommendations. “Taking these actions will help us achieve important progress,” Schulze says. “Existing leadership groups on campus are pursuing them in a collaborative manner.”

Work has already begun on the action items. Student Life is conducting additional focus groups to better understand gaps in the sense of belonging. They’re consulting with others on campus to define precisely what student well-being means at Westmont. They’ve already launched initiatives supporting first-generation students and seek to do the same for other groups that would benefit from additional services. They plan to bring speakers to campus to address belonging and strengthen offerings by Intercultural Programs. Finally, they’ll enhance well-being efforts in all existing Student Life programs. They’ll even explore better food options in the D.C. and improvements to the fitness center so students can improve their health.

“We’re fully committed to doing all we can to enhance the well-being of our students in general, as well as particular groups of students,” Schulze says. “We seek to add to our strong programs for first-generation students and extend them to others, such as our Hispanic and Latino students, as we pursue becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Addressing crucial issues such as student well-being fits into the ebb and flow of daily life at Westmont.”