Today, I’d like to share how we got here and what grounded the recommendation we made to Chancellor Rhodes for our 2021 General Assembly theme, Light Your Fire: The Power of Purpose and Belonging in Student Success.  

In the summer of 2020, all of us here at ACC were in the midst of the unknown. A pandemic of epic proportions had seized our world, and we were in a whirlwind of constant change, uncertainty, and courageous efforts to keep teaching, learning, and working. We were also collaborating to finalize a new Academic Master Plan that would guide our future efforts. To inform that work, TLED hosted the “Future of Work Summit” converging the impact of COVID-19, new remote work models, collaborative technology applications, and culturally responsive practices that would support more equitable student outcomes and close achievement gaps.

One of the presentations by long-time ACC collaborator, Davis Jenkins, Senior Researcher of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, highlighted research findings from institutions implementing Guided Pathways. A key finding was the importance of a light the fire learning experience for every entering student, that was aligned with their strengths and aspirations in a field of interest. Early Guided Pathways work in program mapping depicted introductory courses to the discipline within the first semester, while more recent efforts focus on engaging students in transfer conversations and career exploration as they begin their academic journey.

Another presenter, Tim Klein, Boston College Project Lead for The True North Program and Harvard Teaching Fellow, had conducted research on the science of purpose and the positive impact on students, particularly underrepresented students. In his April 2019 article Why Schools Need to Help Students Find Purpose, he says that instead of asking students “What do you want to do?” to find a career path, we should ask “why?” He explains,

“We promote a long laundry list of virtues including grit, growth mindset and socioemotional literacy. However, Marcus’ story shows that these behaviors and mindsets can’t be taught. Rather, they are outgrowths of something bigger—identifying and pursuing a sense of purpose. Purpose dives deeper than mindsets—it taps into someone’s core motivation for choosing a path. It also taps into the belief structure and understanding of why someone wants to do something and how it aligns with their values and their unique talents, strengths and things they care about. Once students develop a sense of purpose, the mindsets follow.”

The convergence of these ideas sparked (pun intended) the curiosity to dig more deeply into the impact of purpose in student outcomes and success.  In Why College Students Succeed, the Answer May Surprise You, Carl Nielson explains, “When it comes to students, college attendance, choosing a major, changing majors, time-to-degree attainment and student debt, there appears to be a correlation between clarity of personal goals and quality of decision-making skills at the high school level and the length of time in college, student success and student debt.”

There are also considerations about the role purpose can play in helping students, or any of us, mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and the stress, uncertainty, and mental health challenges it carries. In the Journal of Humanistic Psychology article, Purpose as a Powerful Resource in the Time of COVID-19, author Allison White shares that the pandemic has provided opportunities where individuals could have more time to reflect and expand on their interests, motivations, and perhaps a newfound meaning to their goals. The perceptions and actions of service grow exponentially in crisis and during the pandemic, we saw a new perspective on what it means to help each other.  In Who Helps Out in a Crisis?, we are reminded of the intrinsic drive to help and that the needs of others brings out our inner drive to ‘be part of something bigger,’ a greater purpose. Kathleen Tierney, a co-author of “Disasters, Collective Behavior, and Social Organization,” notes the correlation between the anti-racist outcry and the pandemic, “COVID-19 really increased people’s feeling of civic-mindedness,” she said, “and of caring for the larger community.”

Throughout the pandemic, ACC departments and offices made adjustments to help guide students in more ways such as through the Student Money Management Office, targeted outreach with calls and email messages, establishing the Student Technology Support Office, and distributing $29.4 million dollars in federal aid.

We found that purpose also  impacts other key metrics in education, such as:

  • Meaning in life is associated with a higher level of connectedness to parents, school, peers, and teachers, and academic self-efficacy (study skills, time management, critical and creative thinking, and involvement in learning) and personal self-efficacy dimensions (positive self-concept, problem-solving, self-management, and self-reflection) (University of Hong Kong, 2020)
  • Purpose is correlated with a .2 increase in GPA (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014)
  • Purpose is correlated with an increase in college graduation rates by 6-9% (UNC Greensboro, 2017)
  • Purpose is correlated with an increase in the appetite for education (Stanford, 2015)
  • 31% of college students want to replace majors with purposes (LinkedIn/Imperative, 2016)

Research on the Science of Purpose also shows that “purpose positively impacts the entire human psychosomatic expression, e.g., goals, behavioral consistency, cognitive engagement, mental health, physical health, religiosity, stress responses, etc.” (McKnight, 2009) It even supports longevity according to a research study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, “Purpose proved to be more indicative of longevity than gender, race, or education levels, and more important for decreasing risk of death than drinking, smoking, or exercising regularly.”

The more we learned about purpose, the more interest we had in engaging Tim Klein and his work on the science of purpose and its positive impact on students with ours.  As we discussed professional development opportunities, and our focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion, with Tim, the conversation evolved from purpose to also include belonging – two foundational constructs of learning and life.

The research on belonging in Education is also significant. In the Study International article, “Here’s why a sense of belonging in college matters more than you think,” we find that fostering a sense of belonging helps improve academic outcomes, health outcomes, and engagement with students. On the opposite spectrum, “Failing to feel a strong sense of belonging on campus can impact how underrepresented student populations integrate, perform and persist.”

Myra Laldin, a researcher for Research Schools International at Harvard Graduate School of Education, speaks to the psychology of belonging and why it matters.  She shares the correlation between academic performance, dropout rates, and motivation to feelings of belonging.

“When we find ourselves in situations where we are the “out- group” or in an environment in which we feel like an outsider, we use our mental energy to monitor for threats, leaving fewer resources for higher cognitive processes. When students feel as if they don’t belong in a school setting, the cognitive energy that should be used on social engagement and learning is being used to scan for group barriers, discrimination and stereotypes.”

At Austin Community College we have collaborated and connected across all areas of the College to develop belonging in several ways.  We established Cultural Centers such as El Centro and the African American Cultural Center, we have established an LGBTeQuity committee, provided non-gender bathroom facilities, offering the chosen name option, ensured we provide sign language interpreters and captions, established unique student programs like Ascender and BRASS, and we offer a robust Honors program and more.

Belonging is not just important for students, it applies to all of us. In our Sept 17 blog post for this Purpose and Belonging series, I referenced Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, who spoke about the critical need for belonging in new faculty onboarding, particularly key to hiring and retaining faculty who are members of historically underrepresented groups. And the case for shortcomings in faculty development around student othering and belonging was recently made by Dr. Johnnella E. Butler, Executive Leadership Academy Faculty member at UC Berkeley, professor emerita of comparative women’s studies, and former provost at Spelman College (2005–14). Butler says we don’t do enough to address the historical and cultural context of belonging and perceptions of who belongs, who is othered, who believes or is told they don’t belong in the classroom. Hers is a vision where creating a faculty development framework that, “explores historical and contemporary American ways of belonging and othering will guide us beyond inclusion into a “melting pot” that replicates othering to a transformative diversity, as we help students engage the interactions among texts, ideas, feelings, long-held sociocultural assumptions, and facts.”

Faculty development offerings such as the Teaching and Learning Academy and Faculty Talent Onboarding at ACC have not only been developed with an equity framework, but focused programming has been offered to support inclusive classrooms such as our Equity-Minded Instructor Program, Discover your Blindspots: Teach for all Students workshop, the Conflict Transformation Academy, and more.

Sense of belonging contributes to the perception of students that certain colleges, career paths, programs of study, or certain courses are not for ‘me.’ Our ACC Equity Gaps Analysis of September 2020 shows that Hispanic and African American students are overrepresented in low-wage programs and conversely underrepresented in fields like accounting and technology. Providing more robust career exploration opportunities, connecting to career mentors and discipline faculty early, providing media resources with diverse role models in these fields, and building intentional belonging in these programs can provide students with the motivation to explore opportunities where they previously felt they did not belong.

Once in a program or classroom, having the ability to be authentic, open, and actively participatory in a classroom discussion, assignment, or activity without judgement or fear, also generates a sense of belonging. Diversity and inclusion in classes make for rich discussions and broadens the perspectives of all participants, including faculty.  Aligning with the need for academic freedom to generate belonging, a  Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students was formulated in 1967 by a committee with broad representation from the American Association of University Professors, the United States Student Association, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors. They not only defined a purpose in the preamble stating that, “Academic institutions exist for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society,” but also emphasize that:

“The freedom to learn depends upon appropriate opportunities and conditions in the classroom, on the campus, and in the larger community. In order to protect the freedom of students to learn, as well as enhance their participation in the life of the academic community, students should be free from exploitation or harassment.”

Purpose is also a critical driver in organizations and companies where our students will work or that students will build as entrepreneurs.  A study conducted by RepTrak® and StrawberryFrog on consumer perceptions of brand purpose looked at the “higher order reason to exist beyond making a profit.”  Through this work, they developed the Purpose Power Index ™ looking at four key factors. Our ACC partner Tesla and their sister company SpaceX made the top 10 list twice as noted in the article “Elon Musk Is ‘Pioneer’ Of Purpose-Driven Brands, Says New Study,” through highest scores on: (1) standing for more than just making money; (2) improving the lives of people and communities; (3) benefiting society as a whole; and (4) changing the world for the better. Corroborated by Galli in “Elon Musk Life Purpose EXPLAINED: Finding Your Purpose in Existential Crisis,” he highlights that profits don’t drive Musk, but rather a look at the future and the “why” of the work.

“People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working. I think it’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing. There has to be reasons you get up in the morning and want to live. What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future?” — Elon Musk

In The Harvard Business Review article, Your Company’s Purpose Is Not Its Mission, Vision or Values, the story of a 1960 speech by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard looks at the same dimension of purpose in relation to profit.

“I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”

In 1955, Van Arsdale France, founded the “University of Disneyland,” to train and motivate employees that would lead, manage, and build Walt Disney’s theme parks with the goal beyond a material paycheck, but a shared value of an intangible dream, a “raison d’etre” (reason for being), as the driver for grit, creativity, resilience and effort – the same drivers of student persistence and success. In pitching the purpose that would drive a business model of extraordinary customer focus,  Van Arsdale France shares:

“And here were top executives, all of them right there, and I had to get up and say ‘And now our theme: the purpose of Disneyland is to create happiness for others.’ And you see, the beautiful thing about saying, ‘We’re going to create happiness’ was then I could say, ‘Look, you may park cars, clean up the place, sweep the place, work graveyard and everything else, but whatever you do is contributing to creating happiness for others.”

The organization’s purpose, our purpose, each individual’s purpose is the “Why.” Take a look at the purpose elements below and reflect on how they make you feel — each ‘why’ is the driver of employee commitment, customer engagement, brand loyalty, and a greater sense of purpose.

Who What – Mission Why – Purpose
Whole Foods We satisfy and delight our customers

We promote team member growth and happiness….

To nourish people and the planet
Dell We create technologies To drive human progress
Apple To create products To enrich people’s daily lives
Amy’s Ice Cream Giving our customers not just ice cream, but a total experience when they come through our doors.  Because what we also believe is that joy is contagious. To make people’s day
Kendra Scott We thoughtfully and joyfully connect through beautiful jewelry To gives back to the causes and people you care about most
Disney Build a company To create happiness for others
Tesla Accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible. To accelerate the world’s transition to affordable sustainable energy for a better future

And here we are today, with numerous activities from departments around the College coming together to embed these constructs into our daily work to impact excellence and success. A sampling of these activities includes:

  1. Videos of faculty and staff sharing their purpose and belonging stories featured at General Assembly and through social media.
  2. The TLED Calendar, The Power of Purpose and Belonging in Student Success.
  3. Alumni office survey included the following question, “Share the name of an ACC employee — past or present– who made you feel your purpose and belonging during the course of your academic and professional career.”
  4. The Faculty Evaluation Subcommittee has a DRAFT Exemplary Teaching Statement that incorporates purpose and belonging: “ACC faculty are committed to exemplary teaching that engenders student success and is guided by ACC Faculty Values. Intentionally using innovative, evidence-based teaching practices, faculty creatively foster critical thinking, student engagement, learning, persistence, achievement, and sense of purpose. While cultivating a culture of belonging and inclusiveness for all students, faculty pursue excellence and continuous improvement in course design, teaching strategies, assessment and feedback, and student learning. To meet the highest level of exemplary practice, faculty seek out new strategies to intentionally nurture and respect learners’ strengths, interests, needs, and cultures.  Faculty commit to continuous mastery of their disciplines and pedagogy as well as engagement in ongoing reflective practices in support of lifelong learning.”
  5. Student Life conversation about using purpose and belonging to align the efforts of their work.
  6. The Make-It Center conversation about the focus of the center to help ‘light the fire’ of students through career exploration.
  7. Speakers in our Future of Transfer and Transition Summit made references to purpose and belonging.
  8. We have reached out to local and national speakers and organizations for our Speaker Series including the  The Belonging Project at Stanford University (Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine), the Othering & Belonging Institute and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, the Colorado State University Center for Meaning and Purpose (Department of Psychology), Bates College Center for Purposeful Work, and more.
  9. Faculty and Staff Development opportunities including, ‘Purpose and Belonging Informed Educator’ Training and ‘Design for Belonging’ workshops.
  10. Weekly blog by AVC TLED connecting our programs and services to purpose and belonging
  11. In 2022, we will launch the first ACC Service Academy focusing on 6 key areas of service: mentoring, volunteerism and civic engagement, service-learning, servant leadership, shared governance, and sustainability. More information on this will be shared soon.
  12. We’ve started conversations about establishing the first ACC Retiree Association as a way to connect with our colleagues and peers after retirement and to establish an ongoing sense of purpose and belonging. According to the SUNY Retiree Service Corps Website, “They have time, talent, and possess many years of working experience. Many of them continue part-time work or community service. Research indicates that staying involved keeps retirees physically and emotionally strong. Older Americans are often referred to as “super volunteers” and are valued as the most reliable and committed of all volunteers.”

How can we further integrate this in our work? This matrix, aligned with Completion by Design principles, serves as a draft framework depicting how we may be able to help students find and realize their purpose and feel a sense of belonging. Please share your ideas through this blog.

In shared purpose and belonging,


Susan M. Thomason, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Chancellor, TLED


Kindle your interest

What story do you want to tell?

What meaning do you want to create? 

What challenge do you want to solve?


Spark your curiosity

We will empower  you with the tools, resources to help you fulfill your purpose.


Light your fire

And here is why what I teach you matters.


Fan the embers

You belong here.

Find and reach your purpose – What do you love, what does the world need, what are you good at? Enter a career pathway that sparks your curiosity and helps you carry out your purpose. Take create courses and learn in programs through learning experiences with purpose and connected to your goals.      Enter the profession that will help you realize your purpose.
You belong at ACC. You belong in any program of study that sparks your curiosity. You belong in my classroom.

You belong in student life clubs and organizations.

You belong in all spaces that provide support for your academic journey.

You belong on our campuses and our virtual spaces of community.

You belong in this company, organization, field of study, community, anywhere and everywhere.

You light the fire of others.

You create a sense of belonging for others.