Building connections and fostering a sense of community is a massive part of experiential education courses. Not only is the community built on the system important, but how it translates into everyday life is also crucial. But in what ways does the community developed in college-based short-term adventure courses (STACs) benefit college students and universities? This question led to the use of the Psychological Sense of Community (SOC) theory's four dimensions: a sense of membership, influence, fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection to understand:
1. Do STACs influence SOC among students who participate?
2. If STACs are found to be influential, to what extent do they influence SOC on college campuses?
The four dimensions of SOC align with the four elements that make up student integration: interaction, involvement, aligning social views, and acceptance of differences, elements that have been shown to have a positive effect on students' motivation to persist. Because of this alignment, it can be assumed that the sense of community built on STACs makes students feel more integrated into their university, leading to better student persistence.
These values show a medium effect on the fulfillment of needs, large effects on membership, influence, and shared emotional connection, and a very large effect on a sense of community. Hence, the outcomes of the scale indicate that STACs are, in fact, important in developing a sense of connection between students and the university.
Following the scale portion of the survey were two questions asking students:
1. What does the short-term adventure course community mean to you?
2. How has the short-term adventure course impacted your plans to continue at this institution through graduation?
From the responses to these questions, five themes were developed:
Environmental escape was described by students as time away from the university, their daily lives, and social media, as a break before finals, and as the enjoyment of being in nature. Being in nature, away from the university setting, is beneficial to students as it provides a space in which they can mentally recharge and reduce stress.
Attachment was written about in terms of connecting with other students, facilitators, and the university, sharing the course experience with like-minded people, and having feelings of peacefulness and vulnerability. There is a lot of research that suggests that when people experience a recreational activity together, for example, an adventure-based course, their level of attachment and sense of connection are deepened. These deepened connections lead to well-being, motivation, and an opportunity to explore, learn, and relate to others.
Impact of involvement
The impact of involvement spoke to the fact that the STAC created a space in which students could learn about themselves, the outdoors, other majors, and other students. Participants also learned to see their university from a positive perspective. Through being involved, influencing others, and being influenced, students can feel as if they are part of the wider campus community.
The theme of belonging featured keywords such as diversity, individualism, community, students, and included. To foster an environment in which students feel they belong, it's important to ensure emotional and physical safety, both of which are promoted in a STAC and at the university. Bringing a diverse set of students together who identify as individuals at the beginning of the course and a community at the end directly translates to and benefits the university as students enroll as individuals and form ties with faculty and other students.
Finally, persistence was best addressed by one student: [This course] "helped me want to stay when I felt like dropping the college path at school. Without this course, I would not have continued my education here at this school." This sentiment was echoed at varying degrees by other students on the course. Not only does this indicate that the STAC was a benefit to the students, but the university benefitted as well through higher retention rates.
Through this research, it was established that STACs do influence a sense of community on campus, benefitting students and universities, as students become integrated into the university and become more motivated to persist in their education.
Special thanks to Shannon Case Alvarez M.S. who contributed this blog post. This post is based off of her work for her master's student thesis at California State University, Long Beach. For more information, please watch the recording of a workshop we heald on this topic.