An Exploration of Belonging Through Student Union Employment

The purpose of this qualitative case study was to examine the sense of belonging of eight student employees who worked in a student union at a South Texas institution and how the development of leadership skills, if any, aided in their persistence. This study employed a single-bounded case study method because of the ability to get rich descriptions and insightful explanations from student union student workers. For this study, the single-bounded case is framed by the student union employment. This study was shaped by Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory, which discusses how a person’s sense of belonging is directly related to how they experience their environment. 

Today’s student population is uniquely diverse and has their own set of expectations, goals, and dreams. In 2019, approximately 19.6 million students were enrolled at universities, and more than 2 million degrees, at all levels, were awarded, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most of those students attended four-year public institutions full-time as undergraduates. While enrolled in school, about 81% of part-time students and 43% of full-time students were employed either on or off campus; these students worked anywhere from less than 10 hours to more than 35 hours a week. The students did this while also maintaining studies, family obligations, and other responsibilities. The number of students employed, on or off campus, while working on a degree is increasing, according to L. E. Wantanabe’s “The effects of college student employment on academic achievement,” as reported in The Pegasus Review: UCF Undergraduate Research Journal. One of the places on campus where students can work is the student union, also known as the living room of campus. With this growing number of working students, it is important to develop a better understanding of how students who work at student unions develop a sense of belonging, leadership development, and persist to degree attainment. 

The theoretical framework behind this case study is Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory, published in his book “The Ecology of Human Development,” which states that a person’s sense of belonging is directly related to how they experience their environment. This is because individuals develop from interactions they have within their environment. A person’s development cannot be studied outside of their environment because their interactions with the environment can explain why certain outcomes occur. The interactions between these components are crucial during a person’s development. Each of these components play a role in an individual’s development and sometimes even go unnoticed by the individual. Ecological frameworks have been examined through a variety of lenses, but this framework is particularly relevant for student employees who work in student unions since the union is an environment specifically designed with students in mind.

A qualitative methodology was employed. Qualitative research is defined as being pragmatic, interpretive, and grounded in the lived experiences of people, according to C. Marshall and G.B. Rossman’s “Designing Qualitative Research.” This type of research typically takes place in the natural world, uses multiple methods that respect the participants, focuses on context, and is interpretive. Qualitative researchers typically view social worlds as holistic and complex, engage in reflection, remain aware of their own backgrounds and biases, and conduct research systematically. This study employed a single-bounded case study and a total of eight participants. Individuals for this study had to meet the following criteria: 1) be a former student union student worker, 2) have graduated from a Hispanic-serving Institution within the last three years (2017–21), and 3) have a minimum of one year of work experience as a student union student worker.

Cultivating Relationships to Create a Sense of Belonging

Participants discussed various, impactful relationships they developed during their time as a student worker. They specifically mentioned relationships with their peers, campus staff, and the overall campus community. While each of these individual relationships and interactions are important, the most impactful and consistent relationships discussed were the ones with their peers and their direct engagement with campus staff. Such relationships, participants shared, made them more comfortable with how they chose to engage with the campus community. All these relationships worked to create a sense of belonging for the participants. Each of the participants mentioned the importance of being able to interact with other students of their age and develop relationships that helped connect them more to campus. When asked about what the most rewarding or valuable experience of working in the university center was, time and time again, the immediate response was their relationship with their coworkers. 

In addition to the successful, beneficial, and important relationships with peers, participants also fondly remembered the relationships shared with supervisors, faculty, and staff. While each of these individual relationships and interactions are important, the most impactful and consistent relationships discussed were the ones with their supervisors and their direct engagement with campus staff. Participants mentioned that once employed on campus they felt like they had a better, more connected personal relationship with the campus and campus community. Because they felt a stronger connection to campus, they had a sense of pride and a sense of ownership that led them to be better stewards of campus spaces and resources.

Cultivating Development through Student Employment

Participants discussed various, impactful skills they developed during their time as a student worker. They specifically mentioned time management, work ethic, organization, communication, and customer service, to name a few. While each of these individual skills are important, the data emerged as three subthemes: professional skills, transferable skills, and leadership skills. All participants identified they gained from all three subthemes.

Thriving in a Supportive University Center Environment

Participants’ perspectives about the role of relationships (as noted in the first theme) and cultivating development (as noted in the second theme) were possible largely due to the environment they experienced as university center student employees. They specifically mentioned their increased comfort on campus, the numerous ways their confidence grew as they acquired more responsibilities, and how it aided in their persistence to graduation. These students were successful, in part, because of the supportive environment of the university center. The students who work within the university center’s walls are typically highly engaged and involved in multiple organizations. When individuals feel comfortable in their environment, their confidence tends to grow. Participants discussed various ways their confidence grew while in their student worker role. The goal for any student who starts a degree is to persist to degree attainment. Everyone must either have, or develop, a sense of determination, dedication, and perseverance to reach the finish line and obtain their degree. A supportive environment, good friends, mentors, and a strong sense of belonging all play an important role in their experience as university center student workers.

The findings of this study suggest that time spent as a student employee in the student union has an extremely positive impact on student’s sense of belonging, their development of leadership and transferable skills; plus, the supportive environment assists in persistence to degree attainment. Overall, the findings of the study suggest that employment in the student union provided participants with opportunities to engage with the larger campus community. This demonstrates that student union employment should be viewed as an opportunity for student development rather than merely an employment opportunity. It also provided participants with the opportunity to have responsibilities, expectations, and support that allowed them to develop and grow. Participants also were able to create support groups and have experiences that helped push them along on their journey to degree completion. The culmination of the participants’ experiences ultimately supports previous research that highlights the importance of opportunities to engage with campus community to cultivate a sense of belonging. The existing literature on sense of belonging includes traditional forms of engagement such as student participation in campus organizations and faculty relationships. This study found that university center student employment is a student development opportunity that enables engagement with the campus and leads to sense of belonging. In many ways, university center student employment offers an additional environment that can broaden the perceived subsystems on campus that can cultivate a sense of belonging. As such, these findings provide several opportunities to learn more about student union employee experiences.


  • Katheryn Paynter

    Dr. Katheryn Paynter, the 2023 recipient of ACUI’s Daniel M. Maxwell Dissertation of the Year Award, is assistant director of Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi’s University Center. She received her Doctor of Education in educational leadership from Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi’s College of Education and Human Development, a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Texas–San Antonio, and a Bachelor of Science in environmental science from Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. Paynter attended I-LEAD® as a student, served on the Annual Conference grad staff in 2015, has served on several Region II Conference Planning Teams, and is currently the Region II student involvement coordinator. In 2022, she received Region II's William H. Smith Outstanding Professional Award. This article is based on her award-winning dissertation, “An Exploration of Belonging Through Student Union Employment.”

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