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How do we know if Asian American students feel like they belong on our campuses? by Michelle Samura, Ph.D. (Chapman University)

How do we know if Asian American students feel like they belong on our campuses? Existing research clearly indicate that belonging is one of the most important factors for college student success (e.g., Astin, 1993; Berger, 1997; Bowman, 2010; Braxton, 2000; Hausmann, Schofield, & Woods, 2007; Hurtado & Carter, 2007; Johnson et al., 2007; Maramba & Museus, 2012; Strayhorn, 2012; Tinto, 1993). What is less clear is how students, particularly Asian American students, experience and understand belonging on college campuses.

In a recent study, I examined the notion of “belonging” for Asian American college students (Samura, 2013). This was part of a broader study on how Asian American students navigate and negotiate campus spaces (Samura, 2010, 2011). I focused on one large public institution on the West Coast of the United States (i.e., “West University”). And I asked the following three questions:

  • Does being of a particular race, namely “Asian American,” significantly impact students’ sense of belonging?
  • Does being in a particular space, at a particular campus, (namely West University) significantly impact students’ sense of belonging?
  • Does being “Asian American” at West University significantly impact students’ sense of belonging?

 To answer these questions, I analyzed large-scale survey data on undergraduate students’ experiences across the “Coastal University System” (n=58,047), including West University (n=5,800). In this survey, students were asked the following question using a 6-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 6 = strongly agree): “Please rate your satisfaction with the following aspects of your University education: I feel that I belong at this campus.”

 I’d like to pause here… and ask you to think back to when you were an undergraduate student and consider how you would answer this question. What would your response capture? And what might it overlook? Large-scale surveys are by far the most commonly used method to examine and assess undergraduate students’ experiences. While valuable, surveys only offer a landscape view of what’s occurring. A snapshot, if you will. In an effort to get a more nuanced understanding of what may be going on, I incorporated additional methods: interviews and student-created photo journals. I conducted in-depth interviews with 18 students, and 19 students captured and shared their worlds through digital photography.

Here’s a brief overview of what I found.

 Let me begin with findings from the survey data. First, I found that race matters. The sense of belonging of Coastal University System students who identified themselves as Asian American was lower (M = 4.37) than that of Coastal University system students who identified themselves as not-Asian American (M = 4.57). Second, I found that space also matters. Students who attended West University reported higher sense of belonging (M = 4.71) than students at other Coastal University System campuses (M = 4.47). And third, I found that there was also a significant race by space interaction. In other words, the difference in sense of belonging between West University and other Coastal University System campuses was greater for not-Asian Americans than for Asian Americans.

This last finding regarding the combination of race and space (i.e., being Asian American at West University) raises a particularly interesting issue. I expected that the more Asian American students there are at a campus, the higher the sense of belonging for Asian American students at that particular campus. The survey data indicated, however, that Asian American students at West University report a slightly higher sense of belonging than Asian American students at other Coastal University System campuses even though West University has one of the smallest Asian American student populations among the Coastal University System campuses (approximately 16%). Taken alone, there is little indication as to why this may be the case and/or how students at West University are experiencing belonging.

The survey’s findings suggest the need for a more complex view of both the campus spaces and the concept of belonging. By putting the survey data in conversation with the interviews and photo journals, we are able to more closely examine not just whether or not students feel they belong at a campus, but also when, where, and with whom they feel like they belong as well as possible reasons for their varying levels of belonging.

Many students in my study, especially the photo journalers, highlighted various aspects of their physical appearance as a way of talking about how they experienced campus space – about their levels of comfort and feelings of belonging. Students frequently spoke of the difference they perceived and felt when their bodies met the norms and expectations of campus space. These norms and expectations of space became salient as students realized they didn’t fit the norms or meet these expectations. As a result, students would remain highly aware of their bodies in this space.

 (Note: In an effort to succinctly report my findings, I very briefly discuss only three of the emergent themes on how students experienced being Asian American on campus. I’m happy to discuss the findings further with readers who may be interested.)

 Example A: Being Watched

A number of students commented on feeling uncomfortable when walking around campus or to campus, especially when they are alone. Jennifer commented on how she thinks people “look at her weird” when she walks around campus. This sentiment was shared by a number of participants who commented about being highly aware of themselves when walking around campus as well as around the larger city within which the campus is located.

 What is both interesting and troubling about many of these stories is the fact that these students did not actually know the reasons why people may be looking at them. In fact, they only felt as though they were being watched, looked at, or judged. These students were then left to their own devices to determine the possible reasons for feeling and thinking this way. Often, their racial identities seemed to be the most plausible reason. These inner struggles, self-questioning, and attempts to make sense of these things were seen in the image taken by Katie (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Katie: “The Quad in front of the library.”

The picture was taken from across a small metal table on a day when the skies were bright blue. Sitting in the middle of the frame, there is a young woman with her elbows on the perforated tabletop while holding up a sandwich in both hands. Though she is facing the camera, her eyes are diverted to her right, and her lips are pursed as though she is chewing. In the background, people are walking past holding cups of coffee and soda bottles or sitting at other tables. Katie’s image is titled: “The Quad in front of the library,” and she offered the picture to describe when her racial identity is salient. It is, in fact, moments like these as she sat across from her thin, blond-haired roommate that she saw herself as different.

 “[This image] just embodied everything I feel when I’m out with my ‘blonde’ roommate,” explained Katie. She put quotation marks around “blonde” because, in another image, Katie took another picture of her roommate to discuss how her roommate is not a natural blond and spends hundreds of dollars each month touching up her roots. Katie shared that she was determined to capture this image because of its significance. She explained:

What I shot was what I saw. This is what I see everyday when I’m out with her. I feel she fits in, but I can’t. She’s not thinking about race when she’s on campus. I feel not American enough because my features are flat, I have olive skin and my hair is dark. Maybe it’s just me being paranoid or thinking that everyone is noticing me. But I feel like I wouldn’t feel this way for no reason.

 Example B: Layers of Difference

When students differed from the norm, they were frequently met with resistance. For some students, like Monk, the difference caused them to question themselves. Monk is a fourth generation Japanese-American and third generation Chinese-American heterosexual male. When he entered certain spaces, such as parties, his difference seemed to increase in salience. This is what he shared when asked about when, where, and with whom he thinks about his racial identity:

Umm, I guess at certain parties, I feel that it’s important… it makes me think about it… I would always have to tell them about being, you know, having a low tolerance for alcohol. That kind of thing. And it’s because I’m Asian. And I get and it is true. So, that’s just a fact. When it comes to get to talking to girls, I feel strangely like un-respected or something like that. And it’s strange. It’s like, I’m perfectly straight, and I’d be interested in having a girlfriend, but my desire for sex is not that high. And so, I don’t know. Just that whole thing makes me think about, you know, every factor that could possibly affect it and one of it would be being Asian so…whatever.

 For Monk, there were actually layers of difference that became highlighted in this space where significant alcohol consumption and high sex drive are the norm. He questioned his gender and sexuality but ended up including them all under the umbrella of his Asian American racial identity.

 Example C: Appearances

Another common theme among students in this study was a struggle with being highly aware of one’s body in the city in which the university is located, at West University, and in the neighboring college town. Many students, especially the photo journalers, highlighted various aspects of their physical appearance as a way of talking about their level of comfort in these spaces. Racial identification remains closely connected with students’ bodies. Race tends to become salient when students’ physical appearances differ from the norms of the space and even the norms of their own racial category.

 In fact, quite a few participants referred to their physical attributes and appearance to describe their relationship with West University space. When asked to capture an image that addressed where she is not comfortable, Victoria offered a self-portrait titled: “me tanning” (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Victoria: “me tanning.”

 The image shows Victoria, wearing a white bikini that exposes her bare midriff, reclined on a beach towel-lined poolside lounge chair. She is holding up a used paperback book to the bottom half of her face, covering her mouth and nose as well as her chest and neck. Facing the sun, she was looking at the camera with her eyes nearly shut. Along with this image, Victoria explained how she felt about being an Asian American girl in the college town: “I am extremely self conscious/body conscious which comes from being an Asian…girl. [This town] is a beach town, a beautiful people town. It has taken much time and self reflection to be more okay and less uncomfortable.”

 Both this image and her description seem to display a sense of simultaneous comfort and discomfort. The fact that she included a picture of herself in a bikini may indicate her increasing comfort with her body and/or her increasing level of comfort with being in [this college town]. And yet she still covered her chest and bottom-half of her face in a way that possibly indicates a lingering sense of uncertainty, perhaps even embarrassment.

 For many students in my study being Asian American in these campus spaces raised questions of “fit,” and in many cases, a lack of “fit.” In certain moments Asian American students felt as though they belonged. In other moments they felt different, judged, and out of place. Moreover, participants’ discussions and depictions of their belonging during college reveal that required ongoing efforts. For these students, belonging was not a state of being to attain. Rather, it was a process that involved remaking themselves, repositioning themselves, or remaking space in order to increase belonging.

 So what do these findings mean for student affairs professionals, administration, graduate and undergraduate students, researchers, and other members of the NASPA APIKC community?

 For now, I’ll offer my top three takeaways:

1) Gain more insight into the variety of Asian American college students’ experiences – Of course, we all know that all Asian American students are not the same, that there are significant differences within and between Asian ethnic groups, etc., etc., etc. But how much do we really know about their different experiences? And from whose perspectives are we gaining these insights? This leads me to my second point…

 2) Use a variety of approaches and methods to gain information about Asian American college students – Surveys remain valuable. But they offer only one perspective. For example, if I only used the large-scale survey data to examine students’ belonging, I could have simply concluded that Asian Americans students at West University, on the whole, feel like they belong. But, as the interviews and photo journals revealed, there’s so much more going on. And in order to more effectively address the needs of Asian American college students, we should be trying to get as clear of a picture as we can, with all the complexities and contradictions, of what students’ are experiencing.

 3) Connecting research, practice, and programs – It’s easy for researchers to do one-and-done studies. However, the longer that I work with students and student affairs professionals who are engaging with these issues on a day-to-day basis, I more deeply understand the importance of ongoing collaborations so that we all can better more effectively serve students. On this note, I welcome questions, suggestions, and further insight into the issues I’ve raised. Contact me if you’re interested in examining the development of belonging among students at your particular campus.

Works Cited

Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Berger, J. B. (1997). Students’ sense of community in residence halls, social integration, and first-year persistence. Journal of College Student Development, 38, 441-452.

Bowman, N. A. (2010). The development of psychological well-being among first-year college students. Journal of College Student Development, 51(2), 180-200.

Braxton, J. M., Milem, J. F., & Sullivan, A. S. (2000). The influence of active learning on the college student departure process: Toward a revision of Tinto’s theory. Journal of Higher Education, 569-590.

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, 803-839.

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

Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., & Longerbeam, 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.

Maramba, D. C., & Museus, S. D. (2012). 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.

Samura, M. (2010). Architecture of Diversity: Dilemmas of Race and Space for Asian American Students in Higher Education, PhD dissertation, Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA.

Samura, M. (2011). Racial transformations in higher education: Emergent meanings of Asian American racial identities. In X. L. Rong & R. Endo (Eds.) Asian American Education: Identities, Racial Issues, and Languages. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Samura, M. (2013). Remaking Selves, Repositioning Selves, or Remaking Space: An Examination of Asian American College Students’ Processes of “Belonging.” Manuscript submitted for publication.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. Routledge.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of attrition (2nd ed.).Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Samura_headshotDr. Michelle Samura joined the faculty of the College of Educational Studies in 2011. She primarily teaches in the Integrated Educational Studies (IES) Program and advises students in the community emphasis. Prior to joining Chapman, Dr. Samura served as the Academic Coordinator for the University of California Center for New Racial Studies and a Lecturer in UCSB’s Department of Asian American Studies. She also is a former public high school teacher and taught U.S. government, economics, and history in East Los Angeles.

Dr. Samura’s current research focuses on space and race, and she is engaged in two research projects. An extension of her dissertation research, the first project draws on archival research and visual methodology to offer an updated framework for thinking about and understanding what it means to be Asian American in the 21st Century, and to provide greater insight into the role of higher education in individual and collective racial transformations. Her second project draws on spatial approaches to examine university-community partnerships in Southern California. She currently is exploring the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of engaged scholarship, service-learning, and civic engagement approaches and mapping how various practices and programs under these banners are carried out.

Dr. Samura’s research and teaching have garnered a number of awards including selection as a semi-finalist for the 2011 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, recognition as one of the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity Emerging Diversity Scholars, and recipient of the University of California All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity Dissertation Fellowship.

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