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"We Exist!": Sense of Belonging for Indian International LGBQ Students in U.S. Higher Education


This study explored perceptions of sense of belonging in academic and social contexts at West Coast University for Indian international LGBQ students in the United States with a focus on how institutional contexts and sociohistorical factors influence perceptions of sense of belonging on campus at the intersection of multiple identities. To address individual and institutional factors, a critical qualitative framework of Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989, 1991) and a constructivist qualitative framework of Sense of Belonging (Strayhorn, 2012) grounded this phenomenological study. The current study used intersectionality to highlight the multiple and intersecting sociohistorical structures that influence Indian international LGBQ students' perceptions of sense of belonging on campus. Sense of Belonging encapsulates how perceptions of personal and interpersonal experiences impact an individual's connectedness and overall success on campus. Strayhorn (2012) conceptualization of Sense of Belonging into seven elements is used in framing and analyzing the study. The seven elements are (a) sense of belonging is a basic human need; (b) is a fundamental motive; (c) takes on heightened importance in certain contexts at certain times in certain populations; (d) is related to, and seemingly is a consequence of, mattering; (e) social identities intersect and affect college students' sense of belonging; (f) engenders other positive outcomes; and (g)m be satisfied on a continual basis and likely changes as circumstances, conditions and contexts change (Strayhorn, 2012).

All four participants partook in three semi-structured phenomenological interviews based on Seidman's (2013) three-part interview structure: (a) focused life history- understanding of individual and cultural values and journey to U.S. higher education; (b) details of the experience – exploring individual interactions in campus and academic contexts; and (c) reflection on the meaning of the phenomenon – how individuals perceive and make meaning of these experiences. The data analysis developed three major themes: (1) Defying Boundaries, Defining Self and Community, (2) Speaking Language to Power, and (3) Centering Self within Sociohistorical Contexts.

Overall, participants did not feel strong sense of belonging on campus. While interpersonal relationships fostered some belonging, there was a clear lack of overall perceptions of sense of belonging within academic and social contexts. The most salient facets of identity influencing sense of belonging for Indian international LGBQ students were sexuality, race, international student status, linguistic ability, and gender. While undergraduate and graduate students had similar perceptions of sense of belonging, graduate students expressed a need for relationships with other Indian international students while undergraduate students intentionally looked for domestic social circles.

At the institutional level, salient factors influencing belongingness for Indian international LGBQ students were: (a) lack of awareness among domestic peers and faculty; (b) lack of visibility of Indian international LGBQ identities and communities on campus, (c) English language testing and requirements and (d) lack of institutional funding support. Intersecting sociohistorical factors influenced individual perceptions of sense of belonging by creating a culture where students did not feel it possible to express their intersectional identities on campus. Finally the study ends with recommendations for practice and research by higher education professionals and scholars.

The study concludes recommendations for practice and research to foster sense of belonging for Indian international LGBQ students by enhancing support and services specifically for this population while also challenging current definitions of sense of belonging and expanding monolithic representations of international students.

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