Gerard Beenen, CSUF Mihaylo College professor of management, has examined the best practices for universities in supporting student engagement.Decades of research and countless personal experiences demonstrate the importance of feeling connected to and getting involved with the campus community as a chief factor in student academic success and long-term personal and professional achievement post-graduation. But with a student body of more than 40,000 and a diverse campus culture unlike anything that most freshmen have experienced in their past, how can incoming students best engage at Mihaylo College?

Gerard Beenen, CSUF Mihaylo College professor of management, believes that the challenge of engagement may be most acute for new students, but it is a broader concern for the entire university community, including upper-division and graduate students, faculty and staff, alumni, and even new generations of students that have never set foot on campus who will benefit from an engaged campus community as future current or prospective students.

“Large universities like Cal State Fullerton are facing challenging goals to help students graduate faster without compromising educational quality. And we need to do this in an era of tighter and tighter state budgets,” says Beenen. “When students feel connected to the campus community, they help us achieve these goals. Students who feel connected are more likely to persist until they graduate. And once they graduate, they’re more likely to give their time and resources to the campus to help future generations of students and graduates.”

In-Groups vs. the Big Group

While Beenen recognizes that students feel connected through building a social and organizational identity, he notes that there are two approaches to doing this: making a large campus small with dedicated communities of like-minded enthusiasts, such as students clubs, and by building a powerful and engaging broader organizational society.

With more than 325 registered clubs, CSUF students have no shortage of opportunities to interact with like-minded students, with the camaraderie based on factors such as shared majors, professional goals, hobbies, faith or ethnicity.

Though club-related involvement has provided invaluable impetus for connections and personal growth for many students – in some cases with positive consequences continuing for decades – Beenen notes that such small groups have the potential for dividing students into in-groups and out-groups, a bias that negatively impacts the educational and developmental experience.

“Social psychologists have long studied out-group bias, which involves belittling those who are different from in-group members. We’re all vulnerable to this bias,” says Beenen. “In fact, the stronger the social identity we feel with our in-groups, the greater the vulnerability to out-group bias.”

To counter the negatives of out-group bias while maximizing the potential for engagement, Beenen points to the “superordinate identity” of a broader organizational identity, to which all subgroups agree and strive toward.

“Here at Cal State Fullerton, we’re all Titans. That’s our organizational identity as individual members of a large university community,” he says. “When we say, ‘Titans reach higher,’ we appeal to a shared aspiration — a superordinate identity — that all our 325 student clubs can identify with, along with study groups, friendship networks and other informal campus connections.”

Through maintaining this broader focus, while also immersing in dedicated smaller groups for individual enrichment and connection, Beenen believes that universities such as Cal State Fullerton can best foster the conditions for optimal academic success and timely graduation, as well as ultimate alumni engagement.

To read more on Beenen’s insights, please see his contributing column in The Orange County Register. Also check out the latest edition of The Leadership Voice, the video series of Mihaylo College’s Center for Leadership, for Beenen’s thoughts on this topic.