Investigating exploratory students' sense of belonging




Heiskell, Veronica Marie

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No studies about undecided and exploratory students have focused on sense of belonging. In addition, few of these studies feature or spotlight the student voice. My dissertation fills this gap by purposefully investigating exploratory students and experiences and how they develop or do not develop sense of belonging at a four-year institution. The study uses a case study design with photo elicitation methods to identify and understand this unique case, exploratory students and their sense of belonging (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015; Stake, 1995; Yin, 2017). The research questions are:

  1. How do exploratory students describe how they navigate the university?
  2. What do they perceive impacting their experiences at this university?
  3. Where do they experience or not experience a sense of belonging associated with the university? I interviewed 13 first, second, and third-year exploratory or undecided students in a series of two interviews. These students defined exploratory as an active, positive approach to discovering your interests, while being undecided was associated with stigma and a sense of being stuck. They shared that they encountered common supports at the institution, like the positive messaging and resources of the School of Undergraduate Studies (UGS), the knowledge and care of their academic advisors, and strong positive relationships with peers and faculty built through clubs, organizations, and courses. They also encountered barriers like the COVID-19 pandemic, the complexity of the major change process, and restrictions on introductory courses in some colleges. Returning students seemed to experience greater sense of belonging, recalling their memories of UT prior to the pandemic, while first-year students seemed to experience a lower sense of belonging, as many of these students were unable to visit campus and more acutely felt the impacts of COVID-19 and remote courses. Key recommendations for practitioners include moving from undecided to exploratory in university language, addressing the stigma of the term “undecided” and embracing the possibilities of “exploratory,” creating simple and clear major change processes, and investing in specific staff and resources designed to support exploratory students. Key recommendations for future research include investigating the impacts of institutional context on sense of belonging and student retention and persistence at a variety of institutions, learning more about sense of belonging for exploratory students’ post-pandemic, especially focusing on underrepresented exploratory students, investigating how programs or organizations actively work to destigmatize being exploratory on college campuses, developing a photovoice study (Latz, 2017) where exploratory students set the research agenda and identify their unique areas of concern, and explicitly focusing on staff impacts when investigating sense of belonging.


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