The Belonging Project
The Belonging Project at RMIT University was a four-year project that took place from 2011-2014, investigating, designing and piloting an integrated program and school-based approach to enhancing RMIT’s university student experience. The project was aligned with the whole of an undergraduate degree structure and demonstrated the value of a binding narrative – a shared vision for an organisation – that accepts and embraces change. It celebrated the collective and individual capacity to adapt and bend as needed to co-construct a student experience, both educational and social, that is capable of meeting the evolving needs of the ever increasing diversity of the higher education student cohort.
The Belonging Project developed and tested The Belonging Project Narrative Model of Student Engagement. The Model does not approach each tier as rigidly successive and locked to a particular year. Rather, elements of all tiers are present across the undergraduate student experience, but with a shifting emphasis. It does not prescribe specific structures or forms of belonging, but offers a flexible and transferable way of working in diverse higher education environments that can be reimagined and reinterpreted in different institutional and disciplinary settings.
Planting the Seeds
Initiated by academic staff in RMIT’s School of Media and Communication, as a result of a merger of two smaller schools in 2009, the project focused on promoting an ethos of belonging. The Belonging Project was developed to align with the three-year undergraduate degree structure, with students’ sense of identity and belonging being built incrementally across each year of the program.
The project aimed to:
- Develop strategies to support the participation and integration of students from diverse backgrounds, circumstances and cultures, including in particular students from low socio-economic status backgrounds
- Enhance student satisfaction and retention rates, and
- Help develop and make known a distinctive RMIT student experience.
Focus on the First Year Experience
In their first year, students most strongly identify with their program cohort (“I am a Journalism student”). The First Year Experience, therefore, focuses on building connections within the cohort, with peers in their respective year-groups initially and then with peers across year-groups. In doing so, participant students had the opportunity to establish a strong disciplinary and professional base and engage in a number of best practice Orientation and Transition experiences, such as camps, off-campus activities linked to the first year curriculum, events and mentoring opportunities.
The connections formed within the cohort develop within the context of building a sense of disciplinary and professional identity (“As a Journalism student, I am starting to get an understanding of what it is like, and what it will be like, to be a Journalist”).
Focus on the Interdisciplinary Experience
In their second year, students were able to build on the disciplinary base established the year before, becoming increasingly aware of their place within an interdisciplinary community (a wider school cohort). RMIT’s School of Media and Communication offers a range of undergraduate programs, including Advertising, Animation, Professional Communication, Public Relations and more. Familiarity with other disciplines enables successful collaborations (“I can see that being a Journalist involves being able to work with and understand the perspectives of designers, media-makers, strategic communications people, and so on”).
Interventions to achieve this interdisciplinary experience included activities within and outside the formal curriculum, such as shared projects across disciplines, shared informal student spaces, and presentations of student work to a broad range of industry connections.
The Global at Home: At Home in the Global
In their final year, students were supported to test their disciplinary and inter-disciplinary identity and knowledge by working in a wider world of intercultural and global links and experiences. RMIT aims to support and enhance this development by focusing third-year activities on those that help students to understand their professional place in the world: international collaborations, interaction with RMIT’s offshore campuses, study tours and international exchanges. The project’s third tier aim is that every student engages in a global experience of some kind.
The Ethos of Belonging: A narrative model approach to student engagement
The Belonging Project demonstrates that an ethos of belonging has a vital role to play in this binding narrative, for a sense of belonging. Taken in combination, The Belonging Project’s three tiers culminate in building a sense of cohort that begins with a strong, disciplinary base and broadens out to encompass interdisciplinary and global connections. The project makes transparent the existing transitions and key stressor points at which students have indicated the university could be doing more to support and improve the student experience. The model aims to help equip all students, regardless of their background, with the cultural capital required in their future careers.
The longitudinal research proves that it is possible to embed an ethos of belonging into formal and informal curriculum activities. Using small-scale, low-cost initiatives informed by The Belonging Project’s Narrative Model, the university builds confidence and capacity for students in disciplinary, interdisciplinary and global learning environments, providing real life employability outcomes.
While it isn’t possible to ensure that every student has a successful university experience, it is possible to create an environment that assists the student transition process and success. The inclusive approach of The Belonging Project means that all students benefit from the project’s initiatives. In particular, they have been thoughtfully designed to enhance the experience of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, and those who have relocated from overseas, interstate or rural, regional or remote locations to study at RMIT.