At Lion’s Pride, we believe students are the answer. So, rather than suggesting what students need, we believe in empowering them to cultivate core values such as leadership, optimism, perseverance, and respect to help nurture relationships with themselves, their peers, and others in their community.
According to Springtide Research Institute, the mental-health crisis among young people is reaching epidemic proportions, declaring high rates of depression, anxiety, violence, and suicide. It is more important now than ever to shift away from what one person can do differently to improve their mental health and reframe the issue as a collective concern; this means including students in the conversation around their needs.
Our team is committed to examining how belonging and inclusion through our program can help impact students in positive ways. With our mission to foster social-emotional aptitude within young people, we recognize mental health and wellness as a primary concern and acknowledge the need for nurturing community, a sense of belonging, and emotional regulation.
Students have expressed an increased sense of belonging after participating in the Lion’s Pride community. Having the opportunity to feel known, named, and noticed, supports three pillars of the belonging process mentioned in the Spring Research Institute article on How to Build Belonging.
Going back to my freshman year, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Parts of me still felt I was in the body of my seventh-grade self. When I joined Lion’s Pride, I was part of a group where I felt supported
As a critical aspect of personal growth and development, peer mentoring can; be the difference between feelings of isolation and disconnection or catalyze feelings of support and empowerment. We interviewed two former Lion’s Pride participants on how their experience in Lion’s Pride impacted their sense of belonging and inclusion, and they said:
Lion’s Pride Interviewer (LP): Tell us a little about yourself and your role in Lion’s Pride?
(Taiwo): I transferred to Baker College Prep as a sophomore and joined Lion’s Pride as a Junior, and I have been a Big for two years. The program is pretty cool, being able to get to know freshmen from different backgrounds. I didn’t have this opportunity as a freshman, so it feels amazing talking to them about their experiences and helping them in their academics.
(Yesenia): During my freshman year when I was a Little, I was part of Ms. Gilstrap’s original group while she was still here. I’ve grown up since then, and now I’m a senior Big and preparing for college. I’ve applied to North Park University, UIC, Loyola, and more.
(LP): In a general sense, what do belonging and inclusion mean to you?
(Taiwo): Communicating. For instance, establishing a bond and communicating outside of the program to make it stronger. When you feel like that’s your home; they feel safe coming to you and you feel safe going to them and trusting each other to be vulnerable creates that feeling of belonging.
(Yesenia): Previously, I felt like not everyone belongs because we’re all our own people. It’s been important to know that you might not belong all the time, and learn to accept who you are for yourself.
(LP): Can you describe a time when you didn’t feel you belonged or were included?
(Taiwo): When I first moved to the United States, I used to feel left out. My accent was strong and people would make fun of me. I would try to fit in but I wouldn’t be included and that made me feel different than the people who were from here.
(Yesenia): I have a very big personality, and not many people feel comfortable with that, so sometimes I may be “too much” for people.
(LP): Can you tell us how being a part of Lion’s Pride either enhanced or reframed your sense of belonging and inclusion?
(LP): What would you say is your biggest takeaway from being a part of Lion’s Pride?
(Taiwo): My biggest takeaway would be helping my Little because when I help them I’m also learning too, we’re all learning and growing together. I have been able to work on my weakness, in how I communicate. In the beginning, working with my Little was challenging and it taught me to be patient and open, once I got to know her it became easy.
(Yesenia): It taught me to be on top of my academics and care about school, because sometimes you can get in the mindset of not caring, but Lion’s Pride is there to remind you that you might need to raise your GPA.
(LP): How do you feel teachers can be more inclusive of students' voices?
(Taiwo): I would say understanding students’ points of view before reacting can build trust and patience. Things are not easy, so making students feel comfortable and safe talking to them.
(Yesenia): Teachers can be more understanding of students and know that people come from different backgrounds and not everyone has the same story.
(LP): What advice would you give to current/future Bigs or Littles planning to join Lion’s Pride Mentoring?
(Taiwo): Being patient with every step that your Little takes. They might not know what’s going on and since you know more than they do, be patient and support them in everything they do. There might be times when your Little one doesn't feel motivated, but sitting aside and helping through their assignment can help them feel motivated because they have someone to work with.
(Yesenia): If you have the chance, do it.
Knowing that a peer mentor can serve as a powerful tool for fostering feelings of belonging and inclusion among individuals, specifically in academic settings, reinforces the need to amplify the voices of young people. Through active listening, acknowledgment of students as contributors to their community, and creating safe environments for them to share what matters most, we can empower our students to show up as their best selves and transition into the world feeling confident and prepared to thrive socially and emotionally.
For additional information and tips on fostering feelings of belonging and inclusion for your students check out some of the resources shared.