Date of Award

Fall 2022

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Bret Kloos


Feeling a sense of belonging is essential to human health and functioning and has been well documented in the literature. However, questions of context remain. Research in belonging has focused on social aspects of belonging, leaving broader contextual frames unexplored. There has been little work in identifying and differentiating the contexts in which belonging is experienced or in developing an understanding of how the experience of belonging differs across contexts. Current belonging theory lacks this important contextual perspective that could inform the ways in which belonging is constructed and reconstructed through disruption. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, new social distancing policies and guidelines changed the ways in which people maintain their sense of belonging in social relationships. Campus closures, abrupt transitions to virtual learning, and new policies around social gathering suddenly and drastically changed the social landscape for college students. As there has been no research in this area to date, little is known about how these disruptions have affected the ways in which college students experience sense of belonging. The current study took an exploratory, hypothesis-building approach to determine the contexts in which sense of belonging is constructed for college students, and how the experience of belonging has changed since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. A cross-sectional, mixed-method design was used to gather data about the experience of belonging for 21 college students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Results suggest that college students’ overall sense of belonging is constructed across multiple contexts, both social and nonsocial, with discrete experiences of belonging that vary by context. This study captured the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on college students’ sense of belonging by illustrating contextual shifts in students’ composition of social and nonsocial contexts of belonging. These findings reflect and elaborate on recent research supporting theories of multiple pathways to belonging (Hirsch and Clark, 2019) and the role of social surrogates in comprising an overall sense of belonging (Gabriel et al., 2016). Findings from the current study have implications for belonging theory, research, and clinical settings. To support and extend belonging theory, this work contributes a contextual framework for belonging and offers new avenues of investigation for future research to follow.


© 2022, LaDonna L. Gleason