A PLACE OF
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
MA in Education (2014)
Bachelor of Education (2012), UBC Okanagan
BA, English Literature (1995), UBC Vancouver
New Denver, BC
AS THE OLD PROVERB GOES, home is where the heart is.
UBC researcher Angela Finley wants to ensure students’ hearts find a home at the university’s Okanagan campus—and beyond. Finley, a master’s student in the Faculty of Education, is conducting research that looks at belongingness in education.
“My focus is on graduate students at UBC Okanagan from non-English speaking backgrounds,” says Finley. “Essentially, the question I’m addressing is, What do those students need to feel they can achieve academic, social, professional, and personal success here on campus?”
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Belongingness is an important aspect of psychological functioning, and positively affects a number of key factors, including physical health, cognitive performance, life satisfaction, and academic outcomes—all of which contribute to overall health and wellbeing.
“Research suggests that belongingness is a fundamental need and can be as compelling as the need for food,” says Finley. “When you have a sense of security and belongingness you can function at a healthier level, which can help the community function at a healthier level.”
Finley’s research is relevant to her alma mater: student enrolment at UBC Okanagan, comprised of 81 nationalities, is in the process of making international students 20 per cent of its total enrollees, about doubling the 2013 figure. Her research is also timely on a national scale.
“More than ever students are coming to Canadian universities from different parts of the world,” she says. “It’s really a matter of social sustainability in all its forms. Belongingness, or lack of it, has so many implications, from student recruitment and retention, to financial, psychological, and academic factors.”
Scott Roy Douglas, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education, says Finley’s research has important implications for creating learning communities in which students feel comfortable collaborating with each other and working together to create knowledge.
“A major learning theory that applies to university teaching comes from the psychologist Lev Vygotsky,” says Douglas, who is Finley’s faculty supervisor. “Vygotsky put forward the idea that students learn best in collaboration with more capable peers. A sense of belonging can facilitate student’s interactions with each other and these interactions are vital, not only for language development, but also positive academic outcomes.
“Humans are social beings, and the feeling of belonging to a community is a significant part of being human.”
Finley began her research by surveying all graduate students on campus about belongingness, focusing on what it means to them, and how it impacts academic success; then she interviewed grad students from non-English speaking backgrounds to gain more in-depth information from their perspectives.
Now she’s in the process of analyzing the research data with professor Douglas. One of the issues raised by the students from non-English speaking backgrounds in the study was that linguistic barriers prevent them from confidently participating in classroom discussions.
“It’s important to identify things like this and work collectively towards a solution,” says Finley, adding that three themes have also emerged in her research.
“The first is that, yes, students absolutely feel that having a sense of belongingness would increase their academic success. Secondly, students feel that a greater sense of belongingness would increase their happiness and satisfaction at the university, which can have an impact on retention and institutional success.
“Finally, the data also suggests that a greater sense of belongingness would increase feelings of loyalty to the university, which in turn, increases students’ desires to contribute to the academic community, both on campus and as alumni.”
Finley hopes her research will provide a framework that can be applied to better understand belongingness in other student populations, too.
SOWING THE SEEDS
Finley chose to focus her research on graduate students from non-English speaking backgrounds because she knows firsthand the importance of belongingness from a foreigner’s perspective.
After earning an undergraduate degree from UBC’s Vancouver campus, Finley travelled overseas for a number of years teaching English. She started her travels in South Korea before moving to the Czech Republic, Japan, and Montreal.
“I think part of my motivation for this project comes from having lived in so many other places,” she says. “When forming my research idea, I started to reflect on what was missing during my own experiences.”
Originally from New Denver, B.C., Finley came to UBC’s Okanagan campus to pursue her Bachelor of Education in 2011, after spending many years working as a professional gardener in her hometown.
“I loved gardening—being outdoors, being close to nature, connecting to the natural world—but I missed teaching,” she says. “And it’s kind of funny that one of my teachers from high school, Dr. Susan Crichton, now works as a professor in the Faculty of Education. She inspired me to do my master’s at UBCO.”
Finley says that after getting her BEd in 2012, she felt compelled to delve further into teaching and learning at UBC Okanagan.
“The campus is new and exciting, and there’s lots of energy and ideas happening here. Because it’s a close-knit campus, I think it has a lot of potential for belongingness.”
“Research suggests that belongingness is a fundamental need and can be as compelling as the need for food.”
After completing her master’s degree at UBC Okanagan, Angela Finley wants to apply what she’s learned through her research in a way that supports students—although she’s leaving her options open in terms of how that may look.
“I’m definitely an educator,” she says. “But I’m also very passionate about gardening and sustainability, so I would like to stay involved with that. Maintaining our connections with the natural world can help establish a greater sense of belonging, so that’s an area I’d like to explore more.”
Before graduation, her two passions are coming together in the form of a living wall project. The self-contained, movable indoor structure is being planted in a class setting this spring.
Finley is part of a committee of students and faculty creating the small-scale vertical garden in the Innovative Learning Centre (ILC) in the Engineering, Management and Education Building.
It represents the idea that education can and should include practical, hands-on, experiential learning. The intent is to improve the air quality in the space while also promoting sustainability in education, says Susan Crichton, associate professor, director of the ILC, and Finley’s inspiration to pursue her MA.
Crichton says, “Placing a vertical garden within a classroom is an opportunity for students to engage in hands-on inquiry into issues of food security, greenhouse gases, air quality, and esthetics in order to see how that could impact learning.”
Finely was awarded the annual Vicki Green Graduate Award in 2013. The scholarship award was created for a Faculty of Education graduate student conducting research in social, cultural, political, environmental, or economic sustainability.
Finley’s research was chosen on the basis of how it encourages an interdisciplinary understanding of sustainability for children, youth, and teachers.
Story by Jody Jacob
Photos by Craig Pulsifer
Video by Media Centre | Studio