Maithreyi Gopalan head shot with black sweater and maroon shirt and short black hair.
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Among the many challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented to the higher education community, one of the most serious is arguably the toll on college students’ mental health. Penn State researchers have found that students’ sense of belongingness in a higher education institution not only has an impact on their academic performance but might also buffer them against anxiety and depression amid the global pandemic and a renewed racial awareness in the country.

“The global pandemic has really shone a light on how academics and mental well-being are really intertwined especially for a population like college students,” said Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education (education and public policy) and Social Science Research cofunded faculty member. “I think institutions need to be thinking a lot more about what they are doing to promote students’ sense of belonging and what effect that might have, which goes much beyond academic outcomes.”

In a new paper published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “College Students’ Sense of Belonging and Mental Health Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Gopalan and colleagues at Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Center examine a key protective factor — students’ sense of belonging with their college — to understand how belongingness varies overall and for key sociodemographic groups including first-generation (FG), underrepresented racial/ethnic minority (URM: non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic and Native) students, and first-year (FY) students, amid COVID-19; and if feelings of belonging buffer students from adverse mental health in college. Gopalan’s co-authors on the paper are Ashley Linden-Carmichael, assistant research professor of health and human development; and Stephanie Lanza, director of the C. Eugene Bennett Chair in Prevention and professor of biobehavioral health. Linden-Carmichael and Lanza co-direct the PRC’s Addiction and Innovative Methods Lab.

In their paper, Gopalan and colleagues report that studies have shown that students from URM and FG backgrounds report lower belonging, which might be damaging to their mental health. Additionally, barriers to belonging might be higher for students transitioning into a new college environment amid the global pandemic.

Belongingness, according to the researchers, “may buffer students from stress and help them engage more meaningfully in their educational experience.” Gopalan had previously studied belongingness in the context of its relationship to academic outcomes. In fact, a paper she co-authored that was published in 2020 and addressed how academic institutions can foster belonging was recently recognized by the What Works Clearinghouse, as meeting “standards without reservations.” WWC is an impartial team of methodologists within the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education that reviews research and determines which studies meet rigorous standards, and summarize their findings periodically.

“(Studies) on belonging always looked at academic outcomes and integration on campus,” said Gopalan. “I think the innovation in this (new) study is trying to connect (sense of belonging) with mental health symptoms.”

According to Gopalan, she and her colleagues already were investigating the dynamics of college students’ sense of belonging through surveys when the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new twist to their research in spring 2020. They had administered an online survey regarding college experiences to undergraduate students from a large Northeastern public university in November 2019. Shortly after the university switched to remote learning in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, the researchers designed a follow-up survey to better understand changes in college student experiences across their study site.

In addition to the turmoil caused by the pandemic, Gopalan said there also was a “racial reckoning” going on at that point in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, a decentralized political and social movement that seeks to highlight racism, discrimination and inequality experienced by Black people. BLM, which originated in 2013, returned to national headlines and gained further international attention during the protests held worldwide in reaction to George Floyd's murder in May 2020.

“Because we had their same reports of belonging before COVID, we could try and see if their sense of belonging changed during COVID and how did that change happen for different students,” said Gopalan.

After analyzing the data in a large, longitudinal sample, the researchers discovered no significant changes in students’ reports of belongingness at their college amid the pandemic despite campus closure and social distancing mandates. However, Gopalan said students that reported that their institution had welcomed them and felt like they belonged on campus before the onset of the pandemic, “were the ones who reported lower depression and anxiety during COVID.”

“Within-student changes in belonging were protective against depression amid the pandemic for all students, but especially so for URM, FG, and FY students,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

However, Gopalan said, URM and FG students reported lower belonging than their peers both prior to and amid the pandemic. The researchers also found that greater belongingness was negatively associated with adverse mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety. However, she added, the connection between a higher sense of belonging and reduced mental health symptoms was stronger for depression but less so for anxiety. A possible explanation, she added, is that “anxiety is sometimes more salient in a social setting” and social distancing norms on campus amid the pandemic might have reduced the likelihood of social exclusion.

“Similarly, students, especially URM/FG/FY students, might have also been buffered from anxiety triggers due to exposure to an online, perhaps safer, learning environment that new students and students with stigmatized student identities are often exposed to in college during nonpandemic times,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers are planning to continue to study the dynamics of students’ sense of belonging on campus, Gopalan said. They plan to do daily diary surveys that ask students how they feel on a multiple-day basis, as well as examine mechanisms that promote students’ sense of belonging as well as mental health. She added that she envisions studies looking into psychosocial factors that affect students’ sense of belonging and into substance use during and beyond the pandemic.

The study received funding for the survey administration from the Social Science Research Institute, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and the College of Health and Human Development.