Chicagoland Evaluation Association Week: Using a Photovoice Approach to Engage Community College Students to Reflect on Sense of Belonging by Erika E. De la Riva

Welcome to The Chicagoland Evaluation Association Week on AEA365! This week’s postings reflect the diversity of our Local Affiliate members and their work, using a lens of cultural responsiveness evaluation with various types of communities. We are excited to share some of our projects along with lessons learned, hot tips, and rad resources from our projects. 

Casey Solomon-Filer, Vice President, and Asma Ali, Past- President


Erika E. de la Riva

Hello, my name is Erika E. de la Riva, a Latina community-engaged researcher currently serving as Director of Research Planning and Research at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago. In this blog, I will share details related to a special initiative which engaged community college students to reflect on students’ sense of belonging using a photovoice approach. This was a strategic departure from focus groups and online surveys to place students as creators and primary interpreters of these critical experiences. Partnership for College Completion funded this work.

During these uncertain times when our students are taking online classes and accessing virtual student services, it has been challenging to assess students’ sense of connection to the broader college community. Strayhorn’s research (2018) suggests that students who report a greater sense of belonging tend to be more engaged, more likely to access campus resources, and experience more college success. Students’ insights on these relationships will inform tailoring of interventions and delivery of services as we transition into a combination of in-person and virtual formats. 

The Student Engagement Initiative Committee, composed of student-facing staff, co-led this work, helped make sense of belonging relatable to our college community, identified elements of this construct to solicit feedback on, and supported recruitment. It also convened student-facing leaders to champion new initiatives based on key findings from this initiative.

Ten students participated in this initiative with seven students completing all elements of the project. Students represented the diversity of our college community; their different backgrounds and career goals provided richness to their student voices. The initiative culminated in an in-person photograph and video gallery exhibit hosted at our college. Students named the exhibit – “I am the Voice: The Potential Within!”

Students Insights 
  • Students established a sense of community among classmates: they communicated over email, group chat, zoom, texting, scheduled group study sessions, and served as each other’s support networks.   
  • They acknowledged staff, faculty and administrators who supported them through the most challenging moments of this pandemic and helped them stay on track to accomplish their academic and workforce goals. Accessibility of services in-person and virtually made a difference to student success. 

Hot Tips

  • Recognizing our student population, we consolidated the number of sessions and activities so as not to burden our students. We also built in considerable time for students to take their photographs and record their video reflections. 
  • We were flexible and provided one-on-one support to encourage students to complete all program activities and participate in the panel discussion. 
  • We elaborated on the photovoice approach by having students reflecting individually on their photographs and responding to Wang and Burris’s 1997 SHOWeD questions in 3 to 4 video narratives. 
  • A complementary montage video highlighting key themes from two Zoom conversations provided nuanced insight into individual student reflections and highlighted commonalities and differences among our two distinct student populations e.g.– traditional versus non-traditional students. 

Lessons Learned

  • Student recruitment was the most challenging aspect of the initiative – over 40 students were invited to participate, via email and phone calls, with only 10 students agreeing to join the project. Gift cards did not appear to be major incentives for students.
  • Being the first in-person event at our college in the last two years, the event was well-attended and provided a much-needed opportunity to celebrate OUR community. 
  • Students reported feeling heard, and cherished the opportunity to amplify their voices. They invited family and friends to join them and to celebrate their experiences. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Chicagoland Evaluation Association (CEA) Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from CEA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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