It’s almost as if you’re at a party, but you don’t know anyone. For a while, it’s fine to float around the room, tuning into conversations here and there. But after some time, you notice a feeling of loneliness. Of, like, invisibility. Of ‘I definitely don’t belong here’.
It is disheartening enough that, when reflecting on her early university experience, my sister repeatedly returned to these sentiments of paralyzing estrangement from her broader campus community. It is even worse that she is not alone; that feelings of alienation have become the prerequisite for first-year students entering higher education post-pandemic. Indeed, a lack of academic belonging is by no means a new phenomenon and has predated contemporary institutional organizing. However, when coupled with a paradigm shift that suddenly advocates for the permanent synthesis of online or blended learning models, it evolves into cause for concern.
It was in my fourth-year course on ‘Community-Based Research’ with Dr. Joanna Ochocka that I had the opportunity to explore this strong association between a student's sense of academic belonging and their propensity for learner engagement, motivation, and success. As a final deliverable, we were asked to present a comprehensive research proposal, and although I had come into the class with a technical understanding of the general research process—being adept at determining methodology and analysis as it pertains to various research purposes—it does feel that I emerged with a renewed perception on the capacity of research. In fact, although the purpose of the research was to explore the relationship between distance learners’ sense of academic belonging and their success as a student in order to establish an institutional role in fostering empowering virtual environments and communities, a secondary—albeit arguably more valuable—consequence was the change to how I understood and interacted with research.
I had an unchallenged view that research served an objective purpose of identifying issues, regardless of the cost that this may come at. I would recall the Stanford Prison Experiment, or the many, many instances of inappropriate research involving Indigenous communities. Research often felt so far beyond redemption that it was hard to understand where an adequate starting point for improvement, healing, and growth would be. This perspective flew directly in the face of the community-based research (CBR) process at-a-glance. Perhaps it is only apt to say then that the course and this specific assignment instilled a sense of new hope: that research does have the potential to do good and, at best, can invite very real social change.
Unlike traditional approaches, the appeal of CBR lies in its appreciation for three hallmarks: that research is action-oriented, participatory, and community-driven (Ochocka & Janzen, 2014). However, more predominantly throughout this particular research project, the beauty of the CBR approach lies in its integration of an ecological perspective that validates the influence of social determinants of health. Previous research studying virtual learning has broached its potential deleterious socioeconomic impacts and a corresponding risk of increasing systemic inequality through its implementation. The focus CBR gives to identifying the impact of social location speaks to its position as the quintessential research approach.
My background in public policy resonated with its giving substance to the intersectionality of identities, and the social construction and role-making in perpetuating injustice. It validated my holistic and sometimes all-encompassing approach to research, as I have always been chided by research professors for giving such gravity to the effect factors such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, as if they’re not important. I suppose a takeaway is that, while “the main thing should be to keep the main thing, the main thing”, this does not come at the expense of carefully considering the impacts of social inequity and the determinants of health.
The end goal of this research was delineated through a program theory of change. To address the negative impact a lack of academic belonging has for distance learners and their success, acting on findings would involve the provision of recommendations for institutional change (i.e., course design and delivery), as well as initiatives meant to empower a student voice in understanding what is needed to support their success. More conclusively, changes to institutional policies, as well as greater educator-lead efforts to create a sense of belonging, should inspire greater retention and reduced attrition rates for distance learners, increased academic achievement evidenced through GPA and course grades, and improved engagement in courses.
Nevertheless, a nagging question that kept coming up was: how? How can you effectively carry out CBR in an environment wrought with concern and scrutiny for change-making attempts? How can you co-exist in an institutional space and be given the credence deserved, without detracting from or diminishing the true objectives sought from the research? While the role of the researcher is not to fix the problem, how can you ensure the solution presented is sustainable, particularly if there may be voices missing that would otherwise guide the research process?
Thus, a borrowed takeaway is that CBR is not easy. It is not the get-out-of-jail card, or the cop-out for doing research. It requires a level of social maneuvering that is unmatched by other approaches (on top of the infamously challenging statistical analysis required). Community-based research is often not given the esteem it rightfully has earned: for taking the path less travelled in hopes to do the right thing. It prioritizes doing research with, rather than research on, communities, despite the challenges that potentially could be presented. It recognizes that research is the vessel, but communities are the bodies of water that need to support its weight and hold it upright.
When I first started the semester, I had no idea what community-based research was. However, as the semester ended, I not only had a strong understanding of the issue of my particular research inquiry, but the significance of CBR as a research approach. It has cultivated a gnawing itch to advocate for CBR to be embraced as the best way forward; to begin incorporating its practices and values with open arms. As a student, it was easy to look at what I achieved in this course with pride, but as a researcher, it was harder to walk away with a need to do more; to share, to endorse, to defend. It asks a lot of you to reconfigure how you conceptualize and work with research, but the rewards are insurmountable. And that is what keeps me going: knowing that no matter what community-based research calls for, what it gives back is unmatched. It makes it all worth it.