As academics from a large, modern UK university (Claire) and a medium-sized public US university (Mimi), we have been working with the Center for Engaged Learning as attendees in the (Re)Examining Meaningful Learning Experiences research seminar series for the last two years. One of the key aspects of this experience for us has been the opportunity to work in partnership with the initial undergraduate student scholars at the center (Sophie, Ellery and Christina), to listen to their stories as they elevate student voices to the centre of the seminar (Ewell et al. 2022).

Our team within the seminar series (Claire Hamshire, Mimi Benjamin, and Alan Soong Sweet Kit) has been exploring the core components of meaningful peer relationships with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As part of this work, we are considering how we can collaborate with students to co-create a sense of social belonging for students of color through intentional design. Facilitating a sense of belonging through positive relationships between faculty and students and students and their peers is essential for student engagement and success (Carruthers Thomas 2019; Bovill 2020). However, it is noted that student belonging in higher education is complex, individual, and multifaceted (Bovill 2020), and some students find it easier to fit in than others. UK awarding gaps indicate that marginalized students in predominately white institutions have difficulties developing a sense of belonging (Gagnon 2018; Hindle et al. 2021). Additionally, US graduation rates for underrepresented racial and ethnic student groups (except Asian students) remain lower than for white students (NCES 2019), with belonging as a factor affecting completion (Creighton 2007). Working in partnership with students to gradually build a community that prioritizes and develops trusting relationships with these groups is therefore essential.

Concerns about discussing race and inequality can limit honest debates and institutional change, ultimately impacting students’ sense of belonging. Yet making space for these conversations is essential to build the levels of trust needed to facilitate the development of inclusive learning communities and allow students to bring their whole self to their educational experience. The collaborative nature within this seminar has provided a space for the seminar team to engage with the student scholars at Elon and explore peer relationships together. During these discussions the student scholars have encouraged the team to explore how we can best use social media as a space for students of color to share experiences for community integration.

Social media has the potential to provide innovative opportunities to extend and enhance peer communities in spaces unbounded by location and time zone (Bilham et al. 2019). This can allow peer communities to build virtual networks and has the potential to provide safe spaces for new and marginalized voices to be heard (McPherson et al. 2015). Some students feel like they cannot belong in open on-campus spaces as they believe they are not empowered or welcomed. Therefore, ensuring that institutions create inclusive environments, both on-campus and online, in which marginalized students can feel they belong is vital to gradually build community integration.

Over the last year Claire has collected narrative focus group data from BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) student ambassadors at Manchester Metropolitan University who are employed via a cross-institutional Inclusive Learning Communities project to develop and deliver campaigns and events related to the BAME student caucuses. These students aim to create safe spaces to have a dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching; empower students to tackle the negative effects of stereotyping and microaggressions; develop internal and external networks and allow students to make their own change. A significant element of the student ambassadors’ work has been an innovative student-led social media campaign which was designed to raise the visibility of our students of color and develop an online community at the institution. The goal was to amplify BAME student voices, change attitudes, and create an inclusive community for the students of color. The project was initiated, designed, and delivered by the students to develop open and non-judgmental discussions about what it means to be a student of color at university. The students utilized both a podcast series, Shades of Tea, and an Instagram account @MMUBAME, collectively creating braver spaces.

In tandem, Mimi conducted individual interviews with Elon University SMART (Student Mentors Advising Rising Talent) Mentors, a program to support new ALANAM (African-American/Black, Latinx/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American/American Indian, Alaskan Native, Multiracial) students coordinated by the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education (CREDE). Each SMART Mentor is paired with a first-year or transfer student who requests a mentor to aid in their transition to and social integration at this predominantly white institution. SMART Mentors encourage student participation in CREDE events, meet individually with their assigned mentees, and offer social and academic guidance to first-year and transfer ALANAM students.

During the second on-campus seminar week in June 2022, Claire and Mimi reviewed the narrative focus group and interview data in partnership with the student scholars to identify how social media has been used to support peer relationships. These discussions with the student scholars have given insight into the lived experience of our students and helped us to co-create some key suggestions for creating successful online spaces:

An example of a bingo-style graphic for social media. "Venmo Me. Choose any amount and help me fill my board to End Distracted Driving" Many bubbles contain dollar amounts from $2 to $25.
  1. Creating interactive inclusive content to engage students as they scroll through media feeds is vital to engage students and facilitate social connections. We need to consider how we meet students where they are. As students, we (Sophie, Ellery, and Christina) scroll through countless accounts, and they can begin to all look the same. When an organization is intentional and creates meaningful and interactive content it encourages engagement in a unique way. Utilizing features of the app as well as creating customizable and repost-able content maximizes interaction. A common example is the fundraising strategy of posting a bingo board like the one to the right. Messaging platforms can also be used to help facilitate student connection. Apps like GroupMe and WhatsApp can be used without access to a cellular device or data plan, allowing for more equitable access than traditional texting platforms.  Groups for different organizations or classes can provide a first point of connection for students and give them spaces to ask questions, share news and interests, and organize plans and events.
  2. Algorithms are tailored to individual users, so it’s important to consider how social media campaigns are promoted to students on campus and via regular information channels as they may not came across things if that’s not the content they usually engage with on social media. Promoting content across accounts can reach new audiences. Large institutions host a multitude of smaller, independent organizations with their own social media accounts. As a practical example, the university’s primary account can highlight smaller accounts and organizations through reposting a campus-sponsored event. This can help diversify audiences and provide exposure to the student body.
  3. Develop an online identity that can be associated with positive action and positive news. Sharing lived experience is always going to be beneficial, so finding the right social medium to raise visibility and get voices out there is vital. One post or podcast won’t necessarily have significant impact, but it may well lead to individual change and reflection. Anonymity online is often perceived to be a facet of negativity; however, it can be used as a positive tool for change. As an example, using anonymous posting as a vehicle for students to share their experiences provides a sense of community without the social and physical vulnerability associated with publicity.
  4. Student content needs to be created by students not staff. Being clear that students are running social media accounts and are relating content to their own experiences makes other students more likely to interact and engage. By allowing students the liberty to create content that they enjoy and would engage with, it inspires creativity as well as fosters outside student passion and participation. As students, when we come across projects created by our peers, there is a higher likelihood that we will share their content to our personal networks.
  5. Campaigns need to be planned to stay consistent and relevant, such as posting stories and shareable content. Linking these campaigns to in-person events can help students see how they can join a community. Some things to consider when creating campaigns include: intentionality (creating quality content over quantity of content), being mindful of student schedules (not scheduling events and campaigns during student “stress” times such as midterms, finals, or exams), and being mindful of current political events that may impact student well-being.
  6. When connecting on a one-on-one basis, social media can be used as an informal space to ensure that mentees know that they matter and signpost relevant information and support. Social media allows for a personal connection to be made with peers. This can also be a helpful space for more formal peer mentoring relationships. Digital spaces are crucial for staying up to date with what is going on in others’ lives, however following or connecting is only the first step; it takes reaching out to build a positive relationship.

In summary, we identified that to facilitate student belonging through peer support networks, both in-person and via social media, we need to intentionally create inclusive social spaces where all feel equally welcomed. Through partnership work with the student scholars via the Center for Engaged Learning research seminar series we will continue to explore how we create such spaces over the next year.  


Bilham, Tim, Claire Hamshire, Mary Harthog, and Martina A. Doolan. 2019. Reframing Space for Learning: Excellence and Innovation in University Teaching. IOE Press.

Bovill, Catherine. 2020. Co-Creating Learning and Teaching: Toward Relational Pedagogy in Higher Education. Critical Practice in Higher Education. Critical Publishing.

Carruthers Thomas, Kate. 2019. Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands. Routledge.

Creighton, Linda M. 2007. “Factors Affecting the Graduation Rates of University Students from Underrepresented Populations.” International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning 11, article 7.

Ewell, Ellery, Sophie Miller, Gianna Smurro, Annelise Weaver, and Christina Wyatt. 2022. “Through the Eyes of a Student: Forming an Effective and Meaningful Partnership.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. June 24, 2022.

Gagnon, Jessica D. 2018. “‘Bastard’ Daughters in the Ivory Tower: Illegitimacy and the Higher Education Experiences of the Daughters of Single Mothers in the UK.” Teaching in Higher Education, 1-13.

Hindle, Caitlin, Vikki Boliver, Ann Maclarnon, Cheryl McEwan, Bob Simpson, and Hannah Brown. 2021. “Experiences of First-Generation Scholars at a Highly Selective UK University.” Learning and Teaching 14 (2): 1-31.

McPherson, Megan, Kylie Budge, and Narelle Lemon. 2015. “New Practices for Doing Academic Development: Twitter as an Informal Learning Space.” International Journal for Academic Development, 20(2), 126-136.

NCES (National Center for Education Statistics). 2019. Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. US Department of Education.

Claire Hamshire is a Professor of Higher Education and the Head of Education for the Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK; combining a faculty role with a cross-institutional contribution to pedagogical research.

Ellery Ewell and Christina Wyatt are 2021-2023 CEL Student Scholars. Sophie Miller is the 2021-2024 CEL Student Scholar. They are collaborating with participants in the 2020-2023 research seminar on (Re)Examining Conditions for Meaningful Learning ExperiencesLearn more about the current student scholars.

Mimi Benjamin is Associate Professor of Student Affairs in Higher Education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her primary research interests include student co-curricular learning outcomes; learning communities; and faculty experiences, particularly those of new faculty members and higher education/student affairs administrators who transition to faculty roles.

How to Cite This Post

Hamshire, Claire, Sophie Miller, Ellery Ewell, Christina Wyatt, and Mimi Benjamin. 2022. “Using Social Media to Support Student Peer Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 13, 2022.