College Students in a lecture room

Happy ‘New’ Year!

Bobbi Larsen
Bobbi Larsen
Education Consultant

A new year can mean many things — January 1, the start of a fiscal year, the day after a birthday celebration, the start of something new, etc. For our Holmes Murphy Fraternal Practice, though, the academic year marks a new beginning for our staff and clients. And while that has historically been a time of excitement and anticipation, this fall brings some unique challenges for our new year.

The Great Disengagement

A year ago, campus communities were preparing to welcome students back to a more normal college experience. Instead, the experience has been described as the great disengagement.

When Montclair State University surveyed their students in the fall of 2021, they heard things like, “I don’t even know how to approach somebody to be a friend. I don’t know how to date. I’m not sure I know how to belong.”

Create a Sense of Belonging at Your Fraternity and Sorority

Research has shown that students’ sense of belonging can improve college success. A 2021 Gallup survey highlights strong relationships between fraternity and sorority membership and the strength of the college experience.

Another study stated that fraternity members report higher levels of positive mental health and less depression or anxiety than unaffiliated members, and fraternity and sorority members believe that good support systems exist on campus for students going through a tough time.

So, how can your organization create an environment to ensure your members have a successful new year? How can you help people know how to belong? (Side note—these things can be applied beyond fraternities/sororities and student organizations!)

The answer is simple. Just take the first step in creating a belonging environment. And guess what? The new year can provide a clean slate to do just that.

Students are returning to campuses without masking restrictions and other COVID-19 mandates, in-person classes, looser testing requirements, and a hope that students can get back to a more typical college experience. COVID-19 has not disappeared, but we have learned a lot about the virus and what mitigation efforts work. As students come together in communal living environments and classrooms, just as people return to work environments, movie theaters, planes, etc., we can take the lessons we’ve learned to gather together more safely.

In addition to continued safe COVID-19 practices like encouraging vaccinations, colleges are hoping that removing restrictions on social gatherings can help support students’ reintegration to campus.

Eileen Hineline, director of the student health center at Barry University in Miami agrees. “We’re trying to get back to not being afraid to socialize,” she says. “We’ve seen the increase in mental health issues from having so many of our students isolated. This is an important time in their lives that they absolutely need to have that social contact.”

Provide a Safe Environment to Socialize

Fraternities and sororities have an opportunity to build on the blank slate of this new year. You can educate your members about safe event planning, risk management policies and best practices, and how members will be held accountable for following those policies. You can also provide an environment for learning how to socialize with one another again.

Welcoming New Members

Welcoming new members into the community is where belonging begins. Look at how new members of the community are recruited, oriented, and educated. Organizations can evaluate the product that is being sold—does it align with the product being delivered? What steps are being taken to integrate the new members into the culture of the organization? Again, fraternities and sororities have built-in mechanisms to carry this integration out, and the clean slate this new year allows best practices to be used without bad habits carrying over.

Rituals and Traditions

Rituals can also help people learn to belong. A new member ceremony, the tradition of assigning older members to mentor new affiliates, tailgating traditions—these practices can do much to help people feel like they belong, just as waiting for the first school bus of the year or giving a new employee their first uniform can foster a sense of belonging. “Rituals” and “traditions” both have a place in helping people connect with each other.

Focus on Mental Wellbeing

The mental health of students continues to be of concern, especially considering that this generation of traditional-age students have spent significant time in recent years learning on screens and socializing virtually.

Knowing students who feel they belong are more satisfied, have better rates of persistence, and measure higher in terms of wellbeing is critical. The new year provides opportunities for purposeful action to create a sense of belonging, especially as the isolation of COVID-19 gives way to more traditional college experiences.

If you have any questions on how to help build a culture of belonging, we are proud to support this work and provide you with ideas. All you have to do is reach out to our Holmes Murphy Fraternal Practice team!

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