When I was in college, one of the RAs would host a weekly watch party for one of her favorite shows, The West Wing. Most of us did not have TVs, so anyone in the dorm or anywhere on campus who heard about it and wanted to go was invited. With her RA funds, she provided food, drinks, and some of the comforts of a home many of us craved. Students arrived early, and stayed late, even when it meant trudging across a snowy campus for the 42 minutes of anticipated joy and fellowship. When she graduated and became a staff member with campus housing, she continued to offer the beloved watch parties. In Peter Felton and Leo Lambert’s book Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College (2020), the West Wing watch parties might be considered one star in what they described as “constellations of meaningful relationships” and experiences students need to feel genuine belonging that can lead to academic success and persistence.  

So how do students add stars to their constellation of meaningful relationships in college? Interestingly, students thrive when they build relationships with peers, near peers, staff, and faculty. In fact, Felton and Lambert’s research identified meaningful relationships with faculty as a key ingredient for encouraging and motivating students to learn. They suggested that even just asking students how they are and intentionally listening to what they say can go a long way to making learners – regardless of institutional context – feel encouraged and motivated to learn. When students feel welcomed, seen, and heard in academic spaces, they feel more open, curious, and hopeful about their experiences as learners.

Beyond learning students’ preferred names and pronouns, Felton and Lambert suggest creating opportunities to learn about students’ interests and abilities, what experiences led them to choose their major, and what kinds of careers they hope to pursue. Consider taking your student hours/office hours out of your office and into the dining hall, the hammocks, or the library common area. When part of my teaching load included teaching first and second year students, I kept Gatorade, water, and snacks in my office. If students were passing by, they’d swing in and grab some snacks. But I also got to know them through low-stakes conversations. I had the chance to learn about what they were up to, who their friends were (they brought them by, too) and generally how things were going. I had a few who even brought their parents, partners, and siblings by. This allowed me to gauge their well-being and their academic and social progress, and to connect them with campus or community resources that might improve their experiences.

Students’ constellations may also grow when faculty find ways to link student interests to internships, community engagement, or leadership opportunities on and off campus. If your memberships to local, regional, or national organizations offer undergraduate awards for excellence in research, writing, performance, art, or other areas, consider recommending your students. It can also mean creating opportunities where there currently aren’t any. Thomas-Powell argues that “having faculty and students engaged in learning together or applying their education in meaningful ways has a significant impact on student success.” If you have space on an upcoming research project or grant, consider whether there is room to bring students into the work. When students see faculty benefit from the engagement as much as they do, the learning experience is that much more empowering and transformative.

There are other reasons to build meaningful relationships with students, too. In Dr. Jess Stahl‘s powerful USC Upstate presentation (available in the CAIFS course for 2/20/24) on preparing students for an AI enhanced future, she said the most significant way institutions will distinguish themselves during the proliferation of AI is through the quality of relationships they offer their students. Because of that, our campuses should shine with the brightest constellations of all.