Friendship, Work and The Blue Devils

Four-year study of student attitudes and behaviors finds the roots of a sense of belonging and shatters some pervasive myths.

Close friendships in college are one of the factors that lead to a sense of belonging. But surprisingly, a strong sense of academic engagement is just as important.
Close friendships in college are one of the factors that lead to a sense of belonging. But surprisingly, a strong sense of academic engagement is just as important.

Loving your school work, building strong friendships, and enjoying Duke athletics are among the keys to having a good Duke undergraduate experience. The Duke Social Relationship Project (DSRP), a four-year study of more than 4,200 Duke undergraduates from the Class of 2009 through the Class of 2013, has identified these as the key ingredients of well-being at Duke and also debunked some of the prevailing myths about what makes Duke students tick. "We're really struck by the finding that academic engagement is the one factor in the whole study that correlates positively with all the other measures of well-being," said Steven Asher, a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology & neuroscience who led the study. "We're not talking GPA, let's make that clear. We're talking about students' excitement about their academic work and the kind of gusto for the work that includes talking with friends about what is going on in class. Academic engagement was the most pervasive predictor of well-being on campus." The researchers surveyed students on a number of factors that influence feelings of loneliness and belonging on campus, including friendships, activities, romantic relationships, academics and alcohol use. Students were also asked about their feelings about themselves. "Although the concepts 'loneliness' and 'belongingness' have often been thought of as opposite ends of a single continuum, we have evidence that they are distinct dimensions of human experience,"  Asher explained. Asher has been studying friendships and feelings of loneliness for many years and joined forces with Kathy Hollingsworth, Duke's recently retired Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, who also has a strong interest in loneliness based on her many years of work with students. The study team included two doctoral students in Psychology & Neuroscience, Molly Stroud Weeks and Kristina McDonald, and Deb LoBiondo, Gary Glass, and Larry Moneta of student affairs. The study report was co-authored by Asher and Weeks.The study found that close friendships at college are important for protecting against loneliness and add to feelings of belonging.  But it also found that there are a number of factors that are strongly related to belonging that have little or no influence on loneliness, including being academically engaged, being a fan of Duke varsity sports, and feeling like one matters at Duke.  Students who were excited about their academics showed higher levels of positive friendship quality and lower levels of friendship conflict. They had higher levels of faculty interactions and involvement in leadership. They had higher levels of self-esteem and social self-efficacy and lower levels of alcohol use and social anxiety. These academically engaged students dated as much as other students, but had fewer "hook-ups."The study debunks assertions that students must be part of the alcohol and hook-up scene to fit in at Duke. "It's just not true that you have to drink a lot or hook up a lot to be happy," said Weeks. "There's a misperception that everyone here is drinking a lot and that those who are drinking a lot are having a better college experience. Our findings suggest that this is just not the case."More than 50 percent of Duke women and 45 percent of Duke men participating in this study labeled themselves non-drinkers or light drinkers. At the same time, 5 percent of women and 11 percent of men described themselves as heavy or very heavy users of alcohol. The latter numbers show that there are still a significant number of students "engaging in levels of drinking that could be considered unhealthy and dangerous," the study states.Asher and Weeks said it would be difficult to compare the Duke findings to data from other campuses, given the unique set of questions and new measures that were created for this study.Putting the Study to UseDeb LoBiondo, assistant dean of residential life for West Campus, believes the DSRP findings will be of value in developing more positive interactions for students. As an example of what can be achieved, Lo Biondo cites efforts made through the Sophomore Year Experience to offer students moving from East to West Campus better opportunities to interact with faculty. "We know the data show that students with higher levels of intellectual engagement have an increased sense of belonging and lower levels of negative behavior like binge drinking," LoBiondo said. "That's why we provide as many opportunities for faculty engagement as possible, like Faculty Outings, faculty coffees, DPAC outings with faculty, lunch programs with faculty, Chautauqua (discussions) with Steve Nowicki's office like they've done on East."Duke is also encouraging resident assistants to develop strong relationships with the students in their residential areas. "The report shows how personal relationships can have a powerful impact.  It's good to be able to show this to the RAs, to show them how much their work developing relationships with students can really matter in a student's life," LoBiondo said. To continue the dialogue about the study and its findings, the study team has set up a website (http://sites.duke.edu/dsrp/) that includes a copy of the full report, an executive summary, and a forum for members of the Duke community to communicate and react to findings of interest. All students who participated in the study (both current students and alumni) have been sent a link to the study website and are being encouraged to participate in the forum. The site will also be used to respond to questions of broad interest raised by members of the Duke community.

The study report concludes: "Our hope is that these findings will be used as a basis for conversations about life at Duke and ideas for improvement."