Promoting Connection and a Sense of Belonging

The pandemic affects our students in a variety of ways. We know that many students may be feeling lonely and isolated, especially during the winter months. We’ve compiled the information below to give faculty and staff tools to normalize these experiences and to share resources you can provide to students to help them develop relationships and find a sense of belonging.

Resources included on this page:

Tips for Talking with Students about Loneliness and Isolation

  • Ask open-ended questions. Encourage students to share by asking questions that prompt answers that aren’t simply yes or no.

    • It’s been some time since we last connected. I’m glad we have a chance to connect now. Can you catch me up on what the last few [weeks/months] have been for you?
    • I know that a lot of students are struggling with the lack of in-person social interaction. How has this been for you? What have you done to stay connected to people?
    • I heard you say [repeat language that the student used to express how they were feeling]. How has [this feeling] impacted you personally and academically? What are some things you’ve tried to help address this?
    • As we get ready to start the spring semester, I’m checking in with everyone in case we need to adjust anything with how we’ve been running the [class/lab/group]. How has your experience with the [class/lab/group] been thus far? Do you have any feedback on how things can be improved?
    • I noticed that [insert some observable change in behavior (i.e. they are showing up to meetings late or not showing up at all)] recently. This seems unusual for you and I’m worried about you. I want to make sure you’re okay. Tell me more about what’s going on. Note: If you’re concerned about a student, you should contact a support resource to share your concern.
  • Validate and normalize feelings. Acknowledge that we all may be impacted in different ways and that’s okay.
  • Share your own experience. Humanize the experience to help students understand that faculty, staff, and advisors face challenges too.
  • Avoid making assumptions. Don’t assume that students feel a particular way based on your own experience or biases.
  • Share resources for connection and community. There are a lot of programs and resources to help students connect with one another. Here are some community resources at MIT.
  • Brainstorm solutions for creating community. Invite students to be partners in developing solutions and creative ways to maintain community in your lab and/or department.
  • Refer students to support resources if needed. If you are concerned about a student, support resources are here to help. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Communication Templates to Check in with Students

The sample templates below are provided to help you reach out to students to offer a general check-in. We encourage you to use these templates as you see fit. The bolded text suggests spaces that you may be able to insert your own content and is entirely optional.

  • Dear [student],

    I wanted to reach out to let you know that I am thinking about you and I hope that you are doing well. [Insert something that you want to acknowledge about them personally - it could be how well they did in a recent class or project, how they positively contributed to something, or you want to check in with them about a life event that you’re aware of such as their graduate school or job search progress. An example: Last time we talked, you were looking for a TAship for the spring. How is that going?].

    I know that IAP and the spring semester look a little different this year but please know that I will continue to be available if you need anything. There is no need to respond to this message, but don’t hesitate to reach out - even if you just want to talk. Don’t forget that all of the regular support resources at MIT are still available to help you as well. I’ve included some additional resources that might be of interest to you below: [Insert information about ways that the students can connect with you and each other, including office hours, upcoming events, or any of these community resources].

  • Dear [class/group],

    [I/We] wanted to reach out and let you all know that [I am/we are] thinking about you. [I/We] know that the past few months have been difficult for many people, including [myself/us]. [Insert something that you want to acknowledge about the group - it could be how well they performed as a group in the last semester, sharing your excitement about working with them this upcoming semester, or some other group-related reference. An example: Our group meetings won’t resume until mid-February but [I/we] just wanted to reach out and check in to see how you are all doing.].

    IAP and the spring semester certainly look different this year but please know that [I am/we are] available if you need anything. [Insert information about ways that the students can connect with you and each other, including office hours, upcoming events, or other ideas.]

    There is no need to respond to this message, but you also shouldn't hesitate to reach out if you need anything. Don’t forget that all of the regular support resources at MIT are still available to help you as well. Lastly, [I’ve/we’ve] included some specific resources that might be of interest to you below: [include additional resources as you see fit, including any of these community resources.].

Examples of Ways Faculty and Staff Have Maintained Community in Labs and Departments

  • Dedicate time during class/meetings to check in with students and acknowledge things that are going on in the world that might be impacting their work and wellbeing.
  • Use the polling feature on Zoom to gauge class morale (this is an anonymous way for students to share how they’re feeling and can help normalize feelings if you share the results).
  • In place of an in-person meeting in your office, hold a meeting with a socially distanced walk outside, if you and the student are comfortable.
  • People like to connect with others with shared interests, so create opportunities for students to connect with other students in the department (i.e. arrange a program for students to be matched for socially distanced activities like a coffee and walk or to work on a project together virtually. Examples of activities can include cooking or watching a show together on Zoom).
  • Send care packages to students with items suggested/coordinated by faculty and staff in the department.

Do you have other ideas to develop community and address isolation? Email to have your idea shared with faculty and staff colleagues here.

Community Resources that Promote Connection

  • MIT Connect - an app connecting members of the MIT community for virtual, platonic, one-on-one meetups
  • MIT Engage - student organization platform that allows students to join one (or more!) of MIT’s more than 500+ student organizations
  • PKG Public Service Center - connect with community through service, including networking events and short-term service experiences
  • Finding Belonging Through Community - an MIT Graduate Admissions blogpost written by Vadim K (Mechanical Engineering) on finding community by creating space from academic responsibilities at MIT
  • Flipping Failure Social Connections - hear MIT students discuss how giving and receiving support from peers has helped them stay connected

Helpful Articles

These articles below might be helpful for faculty and staff who are talking to students about their feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic.