US Students Nurture Connection, Belonging and Well-Being in New Groups Around Shared Identity

Students in the Upper School have had the opportunity to meet several times this semester in groups to connect and discuss the joys, challenges and experiences of life within a given identity. These affinity groups are important spaces for students to gather to build community, share experiences and co-create a sense of belonging within St. Margaret’s.
The optional, student-driven, student-led groups were introduced this fall after a two-year St. Margaret’s innovation strategy design process that involved researching best practices at other independent schools, conducting ethnographic interviews with over 100 St. Margaret’s community members, students, parents, alumni and faculty, and introducing affinity groups last year with St. Margaret’s professional community, in part as a beta test to learn and improve the approach before engaging students. Members of the professional community and students have also previously experienced participating in affinity groups while attending the National Association of Independent Schools annual People of Color Conference and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, which are held concurrently each December.
“Affinity group spaces are about nurturing belonging and well-being in our students, individually and as a healthy school community,” said St. Margaret’s Director of Equity and Inclusion Victor Cota.
“There are so many wonderful ways at St. Margaret’s where our students can connect and develop a sense of belonging. But the reality is that there are times in all our lives when we do not feel like we fully belong. When that feeling is connected to your identity, especially around intrinsic elements of yourself, it can be isolating, damaging to your sense of self and value within a community, and over time impact your ability to thrive. This is not the experience we want for any of our students as they come to campus each day to learn and we endeavor to educate their hearts and minds, and celebrate their whole, beautifully unique selves.
“Fostering a sense of belonging for every student is one of St. Margaret’s highest priorities in our school’s efforts around health and well-being, especially as we know the correlation between belonging and social and emotional health,” said Mr. Cota.  
Clinical psychologist Dr. Janice Avalone, St. Margaret’s all-school counselor, wrote in a Summer 2021 Highlander article, “The Importance of Belonging for Health and Well-Being,” that belonging is essential to our psychological and physical health, and influences our thoughts and the way we interact with the world. Having a sense of belonging is positively associated with academic success and motivation as well. In a 2017 Harvard University study, the more students felt a sense of belonging, the more they valued required academic work and reported a higher self-belief that they would be successful. Additional studies linked school campus belonging to positive psychological outcomes, including social acceptance, positive emotions and self-worth.

Most importantly, students and alumni alike told St. Margaret’s school leaders that they saw value and personal benefits in affinity spaces, and which groups were most needed by them. In the Upper School, students have the option and choice to participate, or not, in an affinity group moderated by a student leader and member of the professional community around a shared, common identity, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and ability. Affinity groups are for groups who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized in society.

Upper School senior Ava Lentz said, “For me, it (affinity groups at St. Margaret’s) means I can find a group of people that I connect with and relate to and talk to them about things in my everyday life that not everyone else will understand. Affinity groups are connections to people who do understand what you go through.”

Sophomore Wisnel Shook said, “To me, an affinity group is a place to just meet, not necessarily to talk about all the things that’s happening in the world. It’s just a place to meet to have people there that really care for you and care about the issues you’re going through because they actually understand it since they are going through it themselves. Coming to this school and having that small group of people who see me feels nice to feel like they see you and that you belong here. You’re not just a standout or an outsider. There’s other people like you.”

Approximately 20 percent of the Upper School student body has chosen to participate in the affinity groups so far this year. The format of the gatherings are casual and organic, yet they take place at dedicated clubs and activities time in the Upper School schedule, which occurs several times a semester. This time allows for affinity groups, in tandem with other optional student clubs, including academic, advocacy, activity/interests clubs. Some students use this time as a study period.  

Among the new student groups launched this fall are Asian American and Pacific Islander, Jewish, Latino/a/x and Hispanic, Mental Health and the Lived Experience, and Middle Eastern and Desi. These join an existing Black and African American affinity group that developed organically among students and adults over the last few years, the LGBTQ+ group that began as a student club, and the Tartan Support Group that has been in place for many years for students receiving high levels of financial aid. The groups were introduced to the Upper School student community in a special Chapel service that featured a student film, as well as at the fall 2021 US Clubs Fair. Mr. Cota also shared about affinity groups and the student film within the context of the school year’s equity and inclusion goals, at the October 2021 PTF General Membership Meeting.

Upper School Principal Dr. Jeneen Graham added, “Fundamentally, affinity group spaces embody our core values, especially community, equity and inclusion, and character. As an Episcopal school where we strive to welcome and include all of God’s children in our community, ensuring that every young person has meaningful connections, spaces where they can express their voice and be seen and understood is who we are. And, we know every St. Margaret’s student needs authentic belonging as they learn and grow.”
An independent preschool through grade 12 college-preparatory day school in Orange County, California
St. Margaret's Episcopal School does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color, religion, sexual orientation or national and ethnic origin in the administration of its educational, admission, financial aid, hiring and athletic policies or in other school-administered programs.
St. Margaret’s Episcopal School
31641 La Novia Avenue
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
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