During the last few years, the pandemic has caused some students to feel isolated, so this fall Montclair State University introduced a new office to provide students with a deeper “sense of belonging” to the Red Hawk community.
Aptly named the Office of Student Belonging (OSB), the office offers myriad services to promote a strong connection, catering mostly to first-year, transfer, international, first-generation and military-affiliated students. The goal is to support students with opportunities geared toward their educational and personal goals.
Director of Student Belonging Duane Williams, an advocate for students’ needs and success, explains the idea behind the creation of the Office of Student Belonging.
“With the pandemic making students feel disconnected, since Zoom is very different territory, and issues surrounding students finding their fit in the University, there is a need to ensure that the students who enter those doors feel as though they can contribute equally to this environment,” Williams says. “Our mission is really to help not only students but families to be immersed in this college experience and allow individuals to show who they are at the University.”
Formerly known as the Center for Leadership and Engagement, the Office has long been involved in the University’s Orientation Experience program – the first point of contact and interaction students have with each other after they commit to the University. However, the job of making students feel they belong does not end with familiarizing them with the campus but includes partnering with other departments and fostering meaningful relationships to set them up for success for all of their years as undergraduate students.
Roshorn Shivers Jr., a graduate student pursuing a master’s in Higher Education, works to oversee, facilitate and execute the Office of Student Belonging’s Summer Orientation Experience and enjoys making connections with students.
“I can honestly say that working in orientation has given me the opportunity to make an impact on the students and also ignite my fire and passion for Higher Education,” Shivers says, adding that this was his first summer to run an orientation. “I built personal connections and relationships with the students which made me recognize that I not only did my job but also made an intentional impact that they will carry with them throughout the duration of their undergraduate careers.”
Throughout the year, the Office tables at job fairs, student involvement fairs, expos and during common hours to inform students about how to get involved, what being an orientation leader means and what it entails. After a semester, students can apply for jobs in the office and find themselves in leadership roles that can help them grow personally and professionally.
Michael Feb, a senior majoring in Product Design, says he has made wonderful connections while participating in the Office of Student Belonging.
“I think my most positive and heartwarming experience at OSB was the amount of people I met and started a genuine connection with,” Feb says. “The past few years have been a struggle with everyone being online and distant. So being able to crawl out of our homes for the first time in a while, meeting new people and bonding with each other after hours, gave me a sense of family and belonging.”
Jazmin Quezada, a senior studying Medical Humanities, is a first-generation student who is glad she participated in the Office of Student Belonging.
“When coming into this department, I didn’t know much information about [OSB] but once I learned about all the amazing opportunities they offer, I only wanted to keep getting more involved,” Quezada says. “The Office of Student Belonging has given me a lot of new opportunities. In the roles that I have had during my time, I have established many great relationships with all the department staff and connections with campus partners, which have allowed me to gain professional skills that I will be able to use after I graduate.”
The Office is located in the Student Center Annex, room 121 and has become a hangout between classes for many military veteran students. Williams describes the space as “reflective of their experiences and interests so they can feel more connected as there is as much importance to the physical space as there is to the programs and initiatives that we may do to help acknowledge students.”
One memorable moment for Williams was his recent encounter at Orientation with a transfer student who quickly felt a sense of belonging to the University. After accommodating the student for a tour of the campus, Williams received a heartwarming email.
“The student said that my title, director of the Office of Student Belonging, was very fitting because I made her feel that she belonged to the University,” Williams recalls. “Now, when you talk about ‘what is belonging,’ I didn’t have a theme. It was just how we operate as individuals here. What is our ethos? What is our DNA? What makes us who we are? So when you take that experience, and you say, ‘How can we make students feel that they belong?’ And this made me say, ‘OK, we’re onto something.’”
Story by University Communications Intern Rosaria Lo Presti. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.