A new academic year is full of so much newness in all areas of life. When I was at university, my favorite part of a new academic year was selecting my new class schedule which in turn shaped my new rhythm of life to settle into. With this newness came the negotiation of which student club events I had time to attend and what leadership roles I could commit to. In addition, there was the immediate schedule comparison with friends and classmates to see where our free time overlapped. Sometimes there was perfect synchronicity and other times there was calendar blocking of “let’s do dinners on Tuesday’s and lunches on Friday’s.” The variation in schedules meant that there was opportunity to discover new pockets of communities on and around campus and to explore how – or if – I belonged in and to them.
Community on campus can feel like a bubble in certain respects. There can be pride in institution affiliation and who you share your time, talent, and passion with which increases the multiple ties of commonality with campus culture and its community make up. Whether it’s classes, meals, clubs, activities, sports, or leadership opportunities, university life is a unique time to be a part of different communities in one central location.
This year, with all the newness of different campus procedures and social gathering protocol, it may feel like there are restrictions to developing authentic and sustainable community. For example, some universities are requiring students to select 30-minute meal time windows or do carry-out meals, thus limiting the opportunity to connect with friends over a shared meal in the cafeteria. Also, residence halls are implementing new rules about guests in dorm rooms and evening curfews, thus limiting opportunities to study or to socialize with others in person. Additionally, student leaders are looking for new ways to do virtual meet ups instead of on-campus ones. With these changes, students may question how to connect with their communities in authentic and trustworthy ways. Three foundations of community formation can help students develop a strong sense of belonging to and with one another both on and off campus.
Here I speak directly to you, students:
Community formation and sustainability takes intentionality.
Whether in-person or online with others, be authentic about who you are and who you want to be. Otherwise, it’ll feel like you’re performing and you won’t feel wholly connected to either yourself or to others. Your level of belonging is in direct relation to showing up and being vulnerable. Brene Brown highlights this in her books, saying that that if you want to create connection and develop purposeful belonging, you need to listen as intently as you want to be heard. Active listening is one way to purposefully hear and appreciate what others are choosing to share with you and you need to first be connected with your own emotions and body in order to listen well. In this cultural moment, it seems social media can be where you share and/or find resources, yell at and/or encourage people, and find and/or leave a niche group you identify with that transcends location. Being intentional about the (mis)use of social media is important to consider how you claim community and/or it claims you.
Particularly for Third Culture Kids, it is important to activate the same level of curiosity and intentionality to connect with others as was practiced when living in another country. For example, when I was at university, I had to check my intentions for sharing one of my global stories with others: was it to brag about my experiences while living abroad or was it to connect with others and to their stories. Intentionally reflecting on purpose and pride in relationships can grow trust, dependability, and understanding.
Community formation and sustainability means holding something in common.
Having a sense of belonging lies on a spectrum and considering how you construct community will play into where you think you belong and/or don’t belong. All of us are human beings, and with that we all operate out of a foundation of similarity. As we move along the spectrum to being an individual person, we splinter off into different affiliations and affinity groups based on what we have in common with them. While community and sense of belonging can be based on cultural, racial, familial, etc. markers or qualifiers, it is important to acknowledge that these markers can be “hidden” and not known until conversations, history, skills, passion, and proximity are observed, learned, and taken into consideration. Furthermore, being aware of how social media can operate as a counterfeit community in the way it can fragment social support and disconnect or misdirect people from reality is important to remember when discussing sensitive or potentially polarizing topics.
For some Third Culture Kids, there can be a strong sense of being an outsider on campus, especially if they don’t understand specific cultural aspects or cultural values and expressions. For example, I wore a particular sports team logo on my clothes because my family had gifted these particular t-shirts to me. I didn’t realize how polarizing it was to wear them in some local communities. While I was feeling connected to my family in wearing them, I was creating playful division in my friend group. Cultural commonality takes social wisdom and learning. Being curious about culture helps TCKs to change the perspective of “I’m a TCK, no one is like me” to “I’m a person with multi-faceted interests, skills, experiences, and passions, so who can I connect with on one or more of those factors in this place?”
Community formation and sustainability is shaped by shared memories.
Your sense of belonging can be forgotten, but it cannot be lost. Reminding one another of previous times shared in laughter, service, or with entertainment can be significant to reinforce unity and commonality. This foundation can be found and highlighted on social media and in other virtual spaces. Circulating these memories can be especially important this year to remind one another of time invested in events, service opportunities, and passions. Online relationships can be valuable and important through different online mediums, and being aware of how memories and current experiences are curated and displayed should be analyzed in terms of outcome and impact on in-person relationships. Are they useful for connecting or are they creating division? Online communities and different channels are not meant to be individuals’ only way to have relationships and build community.
With Third Culture Kids, sharing memories about previous homes and places can be confirmation that they belong to several communities which have given them a sense of who they are and continue to shape their perspectives. When I was at university, I read through the news of places I used to live in and was wondering how those events were impacting my communities there. One of my mentors encouraged me to also read about local news and to learn how to become more involved in my local community off my university campus. While I had memories from places I had lived, I knew it was time to invest in my current community to create new memories. Community building takes commitment to confront yourself and others and to move through conflict and to celebrate commonality.
In sum, belonging in and to a community takes time as you develop the skills to acknowledge and lean into the love, limits, and leveling of opinions, experiences, and perspectives. Whether virtual or in-person, building community takes more time and more care than you expect. But it’s worth it.
Assuming good intent, remaining curious, and being kind are guiding principles as we consider the foundations of community.