Insights into the Sense of Belonging from Women of Color: Interconnections of Cultural Competence, Expectations, Institutional Diversity, and Counterspaces

Main Article Content

Annemarie Vaccaro
Holly J. Swanson
Melissa Ann Marcotte
Barbara M. Newman


Belonging has been described as a basic human need (Strayhorn, 2012) associated with academic success. Yet, research suggests that students from minoritized social identity groups report a lower sense of belonging than their privileged peers. Data collected via a grounded theory study offer qualitative insight into the development of belonging for Women of Color during their first semester at a predominately white university. In this paper, we use the term Women of Color, as described by Mohanty (1991) to refer to the “sociopolitical designation for [women] of African, Caribbean, Asian and Latin American descent, and Native peoples of the U.S. [and]… new immigrants to the U.S.” (p. 7). Rich student narratives reveal previously undocumented interconnections among the development of a sense of belonging, cultural competency, unmet expectations, lack of compositional and structural diversity, and campus counterspaces.

Article Details



Blaney, J. M., & Stout, J. G. (2017). Examining the relationship between introductory computing course experiences, self-efficacy, and belonging among first-generation college women. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium, 69-74. DOI:

Camphina-Bacote, J. (2002). The process of cultural competence in the delivery of healthcare services: A model of care. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 13(3), 181–184. DOI:

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Eaton, J. S. (2015). An overview of U.S. accreditation. Washington, D.C.: Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Retrieved from:

Freeman, T. M., Anderman, L. H., & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 203-220. DOI:

Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-366. DOI:

Harper, S. R. (2013). Am I my brother’s teacher? Black undergraduates, racial socialization, and peer pedagogies in predominantly white postsecondary contexts. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), 183-211. DOI:

Harper, S. R., & Hurtado, S. (2007). Nine themes in campus racial climates and implications for institutional transformation. In S. Harper & L. D. Patton (Eds.). Responding to the realities of race on campus. New Directions for Student Services (120), pp. 7-24. San Francisco, CA: Wiley. DOI:

Hausmann, L. R. M, Schofield, J. W., & Woods, R. L. (2007). Sense of belonging as a predictor of intentions to persist among African American and white first-year college students. Research in Higher Education, 48(7), 803-839. DOI:

Hoffman, M., Richmond, J., Morrow, J., & Salomone, K. (2002/2003). Investigating “sense of belonging” in first-year college students. Journal of College Student Retention, 4(3), 227-256. DOI:

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D.F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70(4), 324-345. DOI:

Hurtado, S., Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., Allen, W. R., & Milem, J. F. (1998). Enhancing campus climates for racial/ethnic diversity: Educational policy and practice. The Review of Higher Education, 21(3), 279-302. DOI:

Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H., & Longerberm, S. D. (2007). Examining sense of belonging among first-year undergraduates from different racial/ethnic groups. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 525-542. DOI:

Jones, S. R., Torres, V., & Arminio, J. (2014). Negotiating the complexities of qualitative research in higher education: Fundamental elements and issues (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. DOI:

Joseph, T. D., & Hirshfield, L. E. (2011). ‘Why don't you get somebody new to do it?’ Race and cultural taxation in the academy. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34(1), 121-141. DOI:

Linder, C., Quaye, S. J., Lange, A. C., Roberts, R. E., Lacy, M. C., & Okello, W. K. (2019). "A student should have the privilege of just being a student": Student activism as labor. The Review of Higher Education, 42(5), 37-62. DOI:

Locks, A. M., Hurtado, S., Bowman, N. A., & Oseguera, L. (2008). Extending notions of campus climate and diversity to students’ transition to college. Review of Higher Education, 31(3), 257-285. DOI:

Maramba, D. C., & Museus, S. D. (2012/13). Examining the effects of campus climate, ethnic group cohesion, and cross-cultural interaction on Filipino American students’ sense of belonging in college. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 14(4), 495-522. DOI:

Means, D. R. & Pyne, K. B. (2017). Finding my way: Perceptions of institutional support and belonging in low-income, first-generation, first-year college students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(6), 907-924. DOI:

Milem, J. F., Chang, M. J., & antonio, A. L. (2005). Making diversity work on campus: A research-based perspective. Washington, DC: Association American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from:

Mohanty, C. T. (1991). Under western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. In C.T. Mohanty, A. Russo, & L. Torres (Eds.), Third world women and the politics of feminism (pp. 51-80). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Nuñez, A-M. (2009). A critical paradox? Predictors of Latino students’ sense of belonging in college. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2(1), 46-61. DOI:

Pérez Huber, L. & Cueva, B. M. (2012). Chicana/Latina testimonios on effects and responses to microaggressions. Equity and Excellence in Education, 45(3), 392-410. DOI:

Pittman, L.D. & Richmond, A. (2008). University belonging, friendship quality, and psychological adjustment during the transition to college. Journal of Experimental Education, 76, 343-361. DOI:

Pope, R. L., & Reynolds, A. L. (1997). Student affairs core competencies: Integrating multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills. Journal of College Student Development, 38(3), 266-277.

Pope, R. L., Reynolds, A. L., & Mueller, J. A. (2004). Multicultural competence in student affairs. Jossey-Bass.

Pope, R. L., Reynolds, A. L., & Mueller, J. A. (2019). Multicultural competence in student affairs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stebleton, M. J., Soria, K. M., & Huesman, R. L. (2014). First‐generation students' sense of belonging, mental health, and use of counseling services at public research universities. Journal of College Counseling, 17(1), 6-20. DOI:

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., & Johnson, C. S. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12(6), 1178-1197. DOI:

Stewart, D. L., & Bridges, B. (2011). A demographic profile of multicultural student services. In D. L. Stewart (Ed.). Multicultural student services on campus: Building bridges, re-visioning community, (pp. 38-62). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Stewart, D. L., & Bridges, B. (2011). A demographic profile of multicultural student services. In D. L. Stewart (Ed.). Multicultural student services on campus: Building bridges, re-visioning community, (pp. 38-62). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2008). Sentido de pertenencia: A hierarchical analysis predicting sense of belonging among Latino college students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 7(4), 301-320. DOI:

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge. DOI:

Sue, D. W. (2001). Multidimensional facets of cultural competence. The Counseling Psychologist, 29(6), 790-821. DOI:

Tervalon, M., & Murray-García, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Undeserved, 9(2), 117-125. DOI:

Vaccaro, A., & Camba-Kelsay, M. J. (2016). Centering women of color in academic counterspaces: A critical race analysis of teaching, learning, and classroom dynamics. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Vaccaro, A. & Newman, B. M. (2016). The development of a sense of belonging for privileged and minoritized students: An emerging model. Journal of College Student Development, 57(8), 925-942. DOI:

Vaccaro, A., & Newman, B. M. (2017). Belonging through the eyes of first-year LGBP students: A multi-layered analysis. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 54(2), 137-149. DOI:

Williams, D. A. (2013). Strategic diversity leadership: Activating change and transformation in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Williams, D. A., Berger, J. B., & McClendon, S. A. (2005). Toward a model of inclusive excellence and change in postsecondary institutions. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Yosso, T., Smith, W., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D. (2009). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus climate for Latina/o undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4) 659. DOI: