Ida Salin, Aalto University

Key questions:   
  • What are the elements of an inclusive study environment?  
  • Why does supporting a sense of belonging matter?   
  • What actions can be taken to promote a more inclusive environment?   
One factor that affects study well-being is a sense of belongingness: being part of the community, and feeling accepted and valued as oneself. Students’ sense of belonging is strongly correlated with their ability to learn, motivation, engagement, and academic success.   
We want every community member to feel welcome and safe, and all Finnish universities aim to build an inclusive, non-discriminatory, equal, and accessible environment in which students from diverse backgrounds receive fair treatment and equal opportunities and are free to study and work without discrimination.  Elements of inclusive environments can be described as physical, psychological, and social. The physical environment includes different kinds of learning environments and study environments. Here, the key factors include the way studies are arranged and materials distributed, the presence or absence of spaces for social learning and resting, and the level of campus and digital accessibility. The psychological and social environment includes the study community, interaction, collaboration, and study atmosphere.    
A sense of belonging – the experience of being accepted and appreciated in the community – serves the needs of all students, regardless of their background or identity. One of the best ways to foster your own well-being is to do good for others. When members of the university community treat each other with appreciation and respect, everyone benefits.  
Learning to work with diverse groups of students and taking responsibility for building an inclusive environment are also beneficial for your professional development. Agreeing on inclusive ways of working together creates an atmosphere of trust, support, and collaboration and enables low-threshold support from peers. This also provides you with valuable working life skills and prepares you to work in diverse working environments and teams, as research shows diverse and inclusive teams foster creativity and innovation.  

Active action towards a more inclusive study environment  
When supporting a sense of belonging and developing an inclusive environment, we must take concrete action both at a structural and individual level. Structural actions mean reshaping the organizational-level system, processes, and practices to be fair and equitable: for example, having processes in place for individual study arrangements or intervening in non-inclusive conduct and ensuring fair assessment and a physically accessible campus. These structural actions are important, but by themselves they are insufficient. In our daily encounters with peers and personnel – during lectures and between them, in the corridors, campus restaurants, online discussions, and group work – we all contribute to an inclusive culture. Therefore, we all share the responsibility for personal and behavioural development through recognizing and mitigating bias and working together. Together we can build a community where all members from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and safe, and their voices are heard. A sense of belonging can also be supported outside a particular course: more about extra-curricular activities in the next chapter.  
What actions can you take to support a sense of belongingness and an inclusive study environment?   
Engaging and actively participating in the course. Be active and share feedback during the course. Take responsibility for your own learning; respect others’ time and effort (for example, respecting  deadlines); instead of ‘ghosting’, let others know if you are facing challenges meeting deadlines.  
Respecting diversity. Meet people around you with an open mind, and understand that others approach situations from diverse backgrounds and with different experiences.  Respect the diversity of other people and test what happens when you see diversity as a strength and learning point.  Finally, respect other people’s boundaries and allow everyone space to be themselves. 
Being open to new perspectives, listening and giving space to everyone. Stay open to fresh perspectives, share experiences, listen to others and experiment with other ways to foster open discussion with peers, exchange ideas, and build mutual trust. Give space to everyone, and ensure everyone is involved. It is fine to ask questions and it is acceptable to disagree. Read books, listen to podcasts, and be open to change your view based on new knowledge.  
Striving to acknowledge unconscious bias and challenge your assumptions. Try to recognize how your own background, experiences, and privileges affect your thinking patterns, perspectives, and way of working with others. Our unconscious biases and stereotypes may be attributed unfairly to different groups of people, so be careful about the assumptions and generalizations you make.  You cannot know the experiences, thoughts, life situation, or self-defined identity of others.   
Using inclusive language and communicating with care. Use language that everyone understands and use welcoming communication that makes others feel safe and creates a safe work or study environment. Many words, phrases, and expressions in our everyday language might be offensive and strengthen stereotypes, and language can be an instrument to include or exclude a peer.  Language and perceptions undergo a cycle of constant change, and it is useful to bear in mind that some wording changes relatively fast, so the language we use now may well become outdated within a year or two. Be ready to update your vocabulary when corrected.  
Being compassionate towards yourself and others yourself, and (un)learning from mistakes. We are bound to make mistakes, so be compassionate towards and others. For example, if you learn that something you have said was experienced as disrespectful or excluding, listen carefully and try to understand that perspective. Furthermore, in some situations, it can be appropriate to thank the person who corrected you for their effort. Try to forgive others if they harm you by accident. Strive to see mistakes as valuable elements of the learning process.       
If you notice inclusion barriers, do not hesitate to act. Recognizing and removing inclusion barriers is an on-going process. If you notice something in the course content or materials that bothers you, or if any improvements could be made to the accessibility of course materials and assignments (including videos, images, documents, PowerPoint presentations, and so on), please let the teachers know about it.  Finnish universities are characterized by low-level hierarchy and informal relations between students and teachers, so sharing feedback is encouraged.   
Do not hesitate to ask if you feel you need even a little help: support is available at Finnish universities.   


Last modified: Tuesday, 18 April 2023, 12:11 PM