In April 2022, The College Innovation Network (CIN) at WGU Labs hosted their 2022 Annual CIN Convening where the Network convened for two days of action-packed programming, engaging in deep discussion and collaborative brainstorming. The primary focus of this meeting was understanding what belonging, engagement, and equity mean for CIN and higher ed.

To deepen the conversation on our core focus, CIN invited a panel of experts to have an open conversation around unbundling belonging in higher education. The panelists included Rosetta Clay, Doctoral Student & DEIB Facilitator, AJ Leu, DEI&B Professional & Consultant, Chris Smith, Executive Director, College Transition Collaborative, and Jason Thompson (moderator), VP DE&I, Western Governors University, and author of Diversity and Inclusion Matters: Tactics and Tools to Inspire Equity and Game-Changing Performance (2021)

The conversation features rich discussion by the panelists on what belonging means and why we need to focus on it, how institutions can build belonging among their communities, and why diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to achieving true belonging in higher education. Here are five key takeaways from their conversation:

1. Belonging Is An Outcome

The addition of “belonging” to the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) conceptual trio reflects an evolution of our understanding of belonging and what we’re trying to achieve within our institutions. Belonging is best viewed as the outcome of DEI work. Diversity is a fact, equity is a choice, and inclusion is a seat at the table. Belonging takes DEI to the next level and helps put our words into action because belonging is more than just inclusion – it’s hearing and valuing the contributions of everyone at the table.

2. Diversity Is A Fact

One doesn’t have to believe in diversity – it is a fact. We all have unique roles, identities, backgrounds, and experiences. We are diverse by default. What institutions must focus on in the DEI and belonging work is becoming diverse by design and thinking about becoming intentional and purposeful about diversity.

3. Flipping The Model To Become Student-Ready

Historically, higher education was not designed to be inclusive and diverse; rather, it was designed to serve  an exclusive, homogenous population of students. Our institutions today must adapt and design themselves to be prepared for the wide range of students that are now accessing higher education. This means that institutions must rethink and revisit their policies, procedures, and structures within classrooms and across campus to flip the model and become student-ready, rather than asking our students to assimilate to a narrow exemplar of a college student.

4. Institutional Transformation Must Be A Holistic Strategy

Institutions typically create DEI and belonging strategies, or have programs and departments develop independent strategies to promote DEI and belonging. The key to effective DEI and belonging, however, is a holistic integration into all of the strategic plans for the institution. DEI and belonging should be a  part of all policies, systems, and strategies for the institution, not separate work. It’s also critical to treat student experience metrics as vital outcomes in themselves. We need to collect and use that data in a meaningful way to improve belonging experiences on campus.

5. Listen To The Student Voice

Students are playing a key role in pushing the narrative and driving institutions to recognize what DEI and belonging mean for their institutions. By allowing students to lead the conversation  around their needs and experiences, receptive institutions can incorporate their student voice into the transformational change work occurring. Through purposefully listening to students, institutions can accurately and effectively address the barriers students are facing, leading to true systemic transformation  of policies and procedures designed to promote equity on campus.

The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is dedicated to supporting institutions throughout the full life cycle of EdTech implementation, from needs identification to research evaluation. Interested in joining? Find out more: