Genuine Community

Iowa State fosters connections to help all Cyclones find a sense of belonging on campus

Written by Chelsea Davis  |  Illustration by Ellice Weaver

Cartoon illustration of people on campus

Community is About Belonging

Often, it begins with a single connection. A similar interest or identity draws two people together. Then, little by little, they expand their boundaries and welcome others. Iowa State University affords its students myriad opportunities, large and small to make connections and build communities. 

If we're going to serve students holistically to get them to persist, they have to be seen for everything that they are.

Susan Harper, director of The Center for LGBTQIA+ Student Success

Belonging from Day One

Learning communities make it easier for first-year students to find a sense of belonging.

These academic communities create a space for students in the same or similar majors to come together outside of class to talk about what they’re learning with each other, their professor, and their peer mentors, who are often alumni of the learning community. Together, they participate in social activities, study groups, and community service projects; explore careers; and sometimes even live together (21 academic communities have an assigned residence hall).

What started in 1995 as 12 learning communities serving 400 students has since expanded to 91 learning communities serving more than 6,000 students. That’s nearly 90% of first-year students. And the retention rates for learning community students are higher than non-learning community students.

“We see students’ first semester as a pivotal time for setting the groundwork for academic connections and social networks they will need not only that first semester, but throughout their time at Iowa State,” says director Jennifer Leptien (’02 child, adult, and family services, MFS ’05, PhD ’12 human development and family studies).

Leptien transferred to Iowa State at 23 years old, knowing no one and not having had freshman community-building experiences. (Today, several colleges at Iowa State offer learning communities for transfer students.) She eventually earned all three degrees at Iowa State.

“It took me awhile to break the ice,” she says. “Had I had a learning community, I would have gotten involved faster. It wasn’t until I made a connection with a faculty member on a personal level that I realized I was really, truly a Cyclone and part of a bigger community.”

Serving Students Holistically

“None of us are just one thing,” says Susan Harper, director of The Center for LGBTQIA+ Student Success. “If we’re going to serve students holistically to get them to persist, they have to be seen for everything that they are.”

That’s why the Center for LGBTQIA+ Student Success is not the only space for queer students on campus, but it is a great starting point for meeting people.

The Center develops academic and personal success, community, and leadership for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, and allied students. The Center offers a spectrum of activities, from large social events such as bingo to individual activities such as crocheting in a quiet corner of the new space in the Memorial Union.

“Every college community needs a balance between organized fun and organic opportunities, and ideally they bleed into each other,” Harper says.

“My responsibility as an administrator is to provide a variety of entry points for people.”

The Center celebrated 30 years this fall. Harper says its established presence on campus is a sign of the enthusiastic support for LGBTQIA+ students at Iowa State. She aims to maintain that support and encourage new avenues, such as an alumni mentor network.

“What can be a fight on other campuses is baked in the cake here,” she says. “We have a visible, out-and-proud community of Cyclones.”

Creating Community Ecosystems

That’s also the idea behind the Multicultural Center in the Memorial Union.

On Denise Williams-Klotz’s first day working at Iowa State in 2008, she attended the Multicultural Center’s dedication. Since then, its use has evolved from a formal space to a center specifically geared toward students of color.

The center’s meeting room includes three affinity spaces: for Latinx students; Native American/Indigenous students; and Asian American, Pacific Islander and Desi American students.

“Community-building at its most basic level is putting people in situations where they can find commonalities, says Williams-Klotz (’04 psychology, PhD ’15 education), interim director of Multicultural Student Affairs. “In practice, that comes down to creating spaces and offering resources.”

But, she says, it’s not just putting people in a room. “The other part of community-building is creating a whole ecosystem where communities can flourish.”

That happens through studies of campus climate. Through student organizations and clubs, which Williams-Klotz calls the “lifeblood” for students. And through programs such as the Academic Program for Excellence (APEX), a summer program that helps multicultural students transition from high school to college.

Williams-Klotz was part of APEX 22 years ago. It’s where she met her best friend and where she first found community with other Iowa Staters of color. Since then, she’s seen hundreds of students share that experience in the program.

“The lovely thing about Iowa State is some programs change, evolve or go away, but there is that tradition of consistently being able to bring students of color together,” she says. “The university very intentionally creates a space for that community to thrive.”

Breaking Barriers

For Rita Case, helping military and veteran students build community in college is personal. After her husband was injured in the Army, they were on the verge of homelessness, as they waited on assistance to come through from Veterans Affairs.

Rather than lose everything, Case enlisted in the Navy, served in active duty, and finished her enlistment in the reserves. She devoted herself to empowering military and veteran students, by helping to coordinate GI bills, recruiting veterans to college, convincing a college to start a veterans center, and serving as director.

Case arrived at Iowa State in 2021 to lead the Veterans Center. Now, it has a new name — the Military-Affiliated Student Center — and a new space in the Memorial Union.

The overhaul was about being more inclusive, Case says, since veterans are not the only ones who are students. So are active-duty military and reserves. At any moment, they may need to leave class for VA appointments or entire semesters when called to active duty for weeks or months. But they’re not alone, and their experiences are not monolithic.

“There are lots of vets and active military sitting in classrooms that you wouldn’t know,” Case says. “Part of community-building is trying to encourage students to embrace their full identity, and to help them understand how their military identity intersects with other identities they carry. They should be their full selves wherever they are.”