The Meaning of Belonging

This article was originally printed in the Fall 2022 Westminster Bulletin

The Meaning of Belonging

By Kelly Wosleger
Westminster Instructor in Math, Fourth Form Dean

As I reflect on my first year as a dean — welcoming 70 new students to campus for their Third Form year on the Hill and this fall, adding 40 new Fourth Formers to the group — I can’t help but think about the meaning of belonging, our school’s theme for the year. This summer, belonging seemed to follow me everywhere I turned. Perhaps it was a sort of Tetris effect, but the themes of belonging appeared in the books I read and in the shows I binged. It was evident in every classroom and lunch table during our six-week summer program, Horizons at Westminster. I even had a front-row seat to watch belonging unfold as I helped shepherd the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams on a preseason trip to Barcelona.
Here are a few lessons I have learned about belonging.

1. Belonging requires courage and vulnerability, a vulnerability that I had no idea could exist in a first grader. Horizons at Westminster is a six-week summer enrichment program that leverages a unique public-private school partnership to close opportunity gaps for students from Hartford. I have had the honor and privilege of being the program director for the program and last summer, we welcomed 75 elementary school students to campus for our fifth year of the program. In keeping with Westminster tradition, Horizons students eat breakfast and lunch in a “family-style” fashion: One student from each grade is assigned a table along with a Westminster student volunteer and a Horizons teacher. During the second week, I joined table 11, eager to devour my cheesy scrambled eggs, French toast and sausage patty. There wasn’t much chatter, so I casually threw out there, “What’s everyone’s favorite breakfast?” Crickets. I chalked the silence up to Monday morning exhaustion and a long bus ride. About halfway through the meal, first grader Jess Marie, the youngest at the table, said, “Hey, none of us know each other. How about we play the name game. Say your name and your favorite ice cream, and if you don’t like ice cream, say your favorite dessert.”

First of all, Jess Marie for president. Second of all, I failed to realize that the table was silent because no one knew each other. Most importantly, talk about the courage and vulnerability it took for Jess Marie, the youngest at the table, to unite the group. For the rest of the week, conversation was buzzing, and every student felt comfortable sharing their voice.
2. Belonging is so much more than inclusion. Inclusion is a one-way street and usually relies on the “includer(s)” welcoming someone into their world. Belonging, however, is a two-way street and depends on both the individual(s) and the community. On Aug. 15, the girls’ and boys’ varsity soccer teams headed to Barcelona, Spain, for a nine-day preseason trip. Twenty-five girls and 16 boys hit the international scene to play a little fútbol, tour the historic city of Barcelona and hopefully sneak in time for the beach. Sounds like a dream, right?

I have yet to mention that eight of these players are new to Westminster, five of which are 14 years old or younger, and two of them have never left the country … talk about vulnerability (see #1 above). I could have not asked for a better group of returning players to welcome the new players with open arms. However, it is human nature to spend time with people who you already know and who are most like you. While the older girls had certainly established a welcoming, inclusive environment, everyone seemed to be taking the path of least resistance. During our first meeting on the trip, we challenged the girls to get outside their comfort zone and to spend time with people they did not know yet. This took tremendous courage and intention on both the part of the new and returning girls. Night after night, I loved seeing the texts and photos with the most random mix of girls. These at-first-uncomfortable moments turned friendships will be the building blocks of a successful season. They will be the difference between players feeling like they truly belong versus just simply being included.

3. True belonging relies on interdependence. Now let’s get to a few topics we can all relate to from the summer — the Netflix series “Stranger Things” and last summer’s all-school read “Where the Crawdads Sing.” In “Stranger Things,” season four, episode three, there is a scene that shows the main character El (Eleven) upset after realizing more and more that she doesn’t belong at her new school. Little do her classmates know she has incredible superpowers that could save their lives and change the world, but no one is willing to take the time to get to know her (see No. 2 above). Her classmates have no idea that they desperately need each other in order to survive.

I am sure Kya, the main character in “Where the Crawdads Sing” can relate to El. Kya is forced to fend for herself in the marsh after her family members abandon her one by one. She learns to survive on her own, but deep down, Kya yearns to be loved and to belong to the greater community of Barkley Cove. Much like El, the residents of Barkley Cove have no idea how much Kya has to offer because no one has taken the time to get to know her. They’ve created a false narrative about her life and ostracized her for being different. When Kya goes on trial for murder, her lawyer says in his closing argument, “We labeled and rejected her because we thought she was different. But, ladies and gentlemen, did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her?” Both El and Kya have so much to offer to their communities, but no one has made the effort to discover these gifts. Communities can only thrive when all members can offer their true selves, and people can only do so if they feel like they belong. Much of our work as educators is centered around helping our students discover and shape their identities, helping them to discover their superpowers. This is where we begin. Only then can our students be vulnerable and offer their true selves to the community. Only then can they get outside their comfort zones to get to know people who are different from them. Only then can we belong. Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What this great philosopher failed to mention is that the whole is only greater because of each individual part. The Westminster community can only be whole when every member truly belongs.

Contact Us

995 Hopmeadow Street
Simsbury, Connecticut 06070

P. (860) 408-3000
F. (860) 408 3001
Notice of Nondiscriminatory Policy as to Students
In keeping with our support for a diverse community, Westminster abides by all applicable federal and state laws and does not discriminate on the basis of any protected characteristic, including race, color, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national and ethnic origin, ancestry and/or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered program. Westminster admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. 
© Copyright 2023 Westminster School  |  Privacy Policy
AP® and Advanced Placement® are registered trademarks of the College Board. Used with permission.