Podcast Episode 86

The Power of Belonging: Dr. Terrell Strayhorn on the Key to Student Success

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn | 63 Minutes | June 20, 2023

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a socially conscious American scholar, professor, and CEO, who advocates building “a sense of belonging” to strengthen student success.

Since 2017, Terrell has been President/CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting Group—partnering with hundreds of colleges, universities, and agencies on the implementation of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging outcomes for staff and students. Terrell has also published over 200 book chapters, journal articles, scholarly publications, and 11 books, including “College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students.”

Listen as Terrell talks about how students and faculty can create a sense of belonging, what it means to “accelerate learning” in education and life, and how to be a mindful leader.

Watch the podcast episode:

Video thumbnail
Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Before I fill you in on our incredible guest today, if you’re a fan of the show, please leave a review, rate, and subscribe. By doing this, you’re helping us create more episodes and reach more aspiring culinarians and beautiful stories. I couldn’t be more appreciative of your support.

Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a socially-conscious American scholar who’s an expert in college student success and diversity in higher education. His work has been quoted in major news outlets, such as the Huffington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Diverse Issues, and newspapers nationwide.

Terrell is also a professor of higher education in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Illinois State University. He also directs the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia University, where he’s a visiting scholar and lecturer in education and psychology. Since 2017, Terrell has been president and CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting Group, partnering with hundreds of colleges, universities and agencies on the implementation of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging outcomes for staff and students.

Terrell has also published over 200 book chapters, journal articles, scholarly publications, and eleven books, including “College Student Sense of Belonging: A Key for Educational Success for All Students.”

So join me today as we speak with Dr. Terrell Strayhorn about the secret key to educational success, how to become a mindful leader, and so much more.

And there he is. While I am completely out of breath! Good morning. How are you?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Good morning, Kirk. I’m doing great. How about yourself?

This is Terrell

Kirk Bachmann: If I was any better, I’d be you. I absolutely love it. Beautiful. So much to talk about today. I hope to start with a little bit more of a light-hearted ice breaker. I’ve read on your beautiful website, by the way, that you’re an accomplished musician, vegan, and a runner. Typically I save some of that for the end. But first and foremost, how do you find the time to teach, consult, write, run, and play music? Put you right on the spot right off the bat.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Right off the bat. Well, first of all, thanks again for having me on the show. Looking forward to the conversation today. Shout out to all of the listeners who will watch the episode and listen to the episode.

I think that my strategy for managing all of these various parts of my life nowadays is, really, a lesson for many of us who either are in leadership or aspire to be in mindful kind of leadership. That is to, as much as possible, see your life as comprised of all of these things at once.

There was a point in my life, Kirk, where I thought of myself as a professor. I thought of myself as a musician. I thought of myself, separately, as a musician at my church, and I preach at my church. I am a runner. I used to think any time spent teaching is time taking away from running. That any time I spent running was time taken away from my scholarship.

Until one day I realized while running that while running and being at one with myself and universe, my mind is at peace, and that I had clarity of thought. And that while running, I might think about the next book, the outline for the next book chapter. If I leverage the power of technology, which is ubiquitous – it’s everywhere. My Apple Watch, my Apple phone – that I could record when my run is over what thoughts I had about what I need to add to the book chapter. Or where I need to go next in my class.

So rather than seeing each of these activities as separate and discrete, and that they are mutually exclusive – time invested in one is time taken away from the other – I started to really appreciate that this is Terrell. This is the complexity of my life. I am at all times a runner, at all times vegan, at all times a professor. When I started to really embracing – this really is a segue directly into belonging – when I really started embracing this as authentically me, I found, Wow! I have more time because I’m not blocking time on my schedule for one activity, but I’m starting to see how I can have my teaching inform my research, and that while doing research, I am connecting with my friends and my students.

Nowadays, you can have all sorts of running devices and exercise devices. You probably can’t tell from the angle of my room, but I’m standing up because standing up is part of my daily exercise.

Rather than seeing these as separate and discrete, I really started seeing them as one of the whole. And more importantly, authentically me and embracing the fact that I live across all of these categories. Life is complicated in that way. When I did it, I found, Wow! I used to think I had not enough time. I actually have extra time that I can now devote to some other kinds of enterprising activities that we’ll talk about in just a moment.

The Soul of Music

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Beautifully said. I love the term authentic. We’ll keep coming back to that. One analogy that I have to make: in the culinary world, because ingredients also are not mutually exclusive. We call that, when it all comes together in beautiful harmony, that we have achieved harmony in the kitchen. I love that as a backdrop.

I’m going to keep picking on you for a minute. Musician. What instruments do you play?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: I was going to say, you mentioned harmony. That’s gotta go right into music. I appreciate any metaphor that brings together music.

I’m a piano player, all keys: organ, keyboard, piano. I learned on an upright piano. I would like to say that my first piano teacher, who was an informal music instructor, was my maternal grandmother, who’s a choir director. At her little Baptist church in North Carolina, she would allow me to tickle the ivory, just sort of play around on the keys, until I would eventually go to college and train.

My strongest instrument is my voice. I’m a singer and an instrumentalist.

Kirk Bachmann: Was music your first passion coming from your grandmother, and hearing it in church, before you realized you had a gift for a voice – in many ways, not just singing, but also talking?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: I think so. My grandmother – she’s deceased now – I think a lot about the lessons that she taught. She was a teacher. She was an elementary school teacher, kindergarten through sixth. Growing up, I spent every summer with my grandma in her little town in North Carolina. She told me a lot of things. She took me a lot of places, but what I remember most are all of the songs that my grandmother taught me.

And she would not teach me at church. She would, but she taught me in her kitchen. She taught me while hanging clothes out on her clothing line. She wouldn’t just sing and teach me the lyrics. She told me, “Now ‘Rell, you gotta sing.” She listened to me struggle to sing some song. She would give me honest feedback about my performance, sometimes telling me I needed to practice a lot more.

As I matured into my voice, she would also be one of my first fans who would celebrate as I started to connect, as you said, come into harmony with myself. Again, the angle of the camera may be misleading. I’m not that tall. I’m like 5’6”, 130 pounds. I’m a little dude. But I learned as a kid that my strongest muscle was actually – apart from my mind – my voice. My grandma taught me how to use it, like you said, musically, but also in many ways how to use my voice to speak up for myself. To speak up for the things I care about.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Ironically enough, many of the culinarians that I speak to also have some love for music, motorcycles, food, things like that. If I asked you the top three bands of all time, would you have that at the top of your head?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Top three bands of all time.

Kirk Bachmann: Or musicians. Musicians is even more eloquent.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Musicians of all time. That’s a hard one. There are so many talented musicians out there. What I can say as a musician and as a singer, I care very deeply about the sound of music. There are a lot of musicians today – this is no critique or slam to anyone – but there are a lot of people who are performers. They do very impressive dance routines, and they can put on a fabulous show. Sometimes, the theatrics of the performance can overshadow the vocal offering. But I’m a singer and speaker. I don’t get caught up in just the theatrics. I pay particular attention to the melody, the harmony, the cadence, the soul behind it.

In that way, let me just offer three cross genres to show the diversity here.

One, I would be hard-pressed to not acknowledge the musical genius of folks like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. These are timeless kinds of voices that can certainly perform and entertain. At the end of the day, you know you have a good song.

Another musician who doesn’t sing soul is mostly known for her country music, but is a masterful singer, and plays instruments, is Dolly Parton. I spent time on the faculty of the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. I was there when the University of Tennessee gave Dolly an honorary doctorate. I will never forget, Kirk, when she came into the auditorium with just a guitar in her hand. I was captivated. This live acoustic guitar rendition, most beautiful song ever.

Lastly, and finally, one of my own musical inspirations, and that’s John Legend. Again, I find myself particularly inspired by those who are vocalists as well as instrumentalists.

Vegan on a Dare

Kirk Bachmann: Such a great response. I’m still tingling. I’m a country music fan, and Dolly Parton certainly fits the bill there. I can’t even imagine. Can I just say right off the bat what an honor it is to speak with such – or be in the presence of such a great speaker. I told Noelle before we got started, “Have you listened to this guy talk? He’s going to upstage me on this!” Just so eloquent. So fun to chat.

Let’s jump into the diet. I want to hear all about your vegan lifestyle, when it came to be, what it means to you, how that fits in to the harmony and your cadence of the day. Then, to put you on the spot, to where you go in the city of Chicago for some plant-based food.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Oh my gosh.

Kirk Bachmann: A lot there.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Tons. I became a vegan, first, on a dare. Really, it was a challenge from a friend of mine who had been a vegan for a couple of years, and said to me, “I bet you can’t be vegan.”

I said, “Well, I don’t even know what that means.” So I had to start googling what that meant. I was very familiar with vegetarian. At that point, about five years ago, I was pretty much vegetarian, although – I’m from Virginia Beach, Virginia originally, and so growing up near the ocean, seafood was big in my family. I liked some fish. I like crab. I didn’t do a whole lot of red meat. I did do chicken.

So when he challenged me to do this, I said, “Yeah, sure, I can do it.” Literally, overnight, November of 2018, I stopped, pivoted overnight to being vegan, making sure everything I would eat and take in was plant-based and not an animal product.

I would say that my vegan journey grew from there. It was first a challenge that then became a value, and really, a way of life for me. It resonates – it’s in harmony – with so many other of my commitments. I’m glad to know that, for me to live, no animal has to die.

People ask me all the time, “When you became vegan, what did you miss most?” Not much! One of the first things I realized, when I was a meat eater – this will resonate with lots in the listening audience – I would be tired sometimes after eating. I’d have a heavy meal at holiday times. When I became plant-based and vegan, I could eat. I felt very healthy. I felt very energized after my meals. The other thing is, I’ve been a pretty picky eater most of my life. I don’t eat things that are unknown to me. I’m a texture kind of guy, so I’ve got to make sure that it looks and feels right. So I was being more intentional about what I would eat, where I would eat. I think the intentionality around my diet made me, one, overall more healthy, but also it helped me. I would go sometimes a whole day without eating because of the rush of my day and so forth. But because I had to think about what would I [eat], where would I [eat], what would I avoid, I was more intentional about it. I think putting that focus on my diet brought a lot of my other aspects of my overall mental health and well being into view. So I would say that’s been really exciting.

Of course, it’s built out from there. I’m now more intentional about the kinds of causes that I support, the kind of organizations that I support and partner with. I try to invest time, energy and resources into organizations that align with my commitments around vegan lifestyle and animal rights and the like. So that’s been very exciting.

In terms of where I eat, there are a lot of places. Before living in Chicago, I have to tell you, I lived in a place called Richmond, Virginia, which is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia. There is a really wonderful spot there called New Vegan. I like New Vegan partly because…. If I’m honest with myself because I have to be because we said we would be in this conversation, there are parts of me that kind of miss aspects of seafood, not such that I want to violate my diet. But there are vegan or plant-based fish, plant-based fish sticks, and things like this, that are available. New Vegan has a really wonderful one there. They have a plant-based lasagna that is delicious.

Any place that does that. I know it is very simple and I should be embarrassed to say this, but I also pay attention to any vegan hot dogs. Every now and again, you just want a quick hot dog, and I can’t eat those now. Especially in Chicago, you find these vegan spots that have really amazing vegan hot dogs that they can put all sorts of vegan chili and things on to make them just scrumptious.

Kirk Bachmann: You touched on a really important point. We’re still on the intro! We haven’t even gotten into the core here. We’re so hung up on who you are, and I love it. This whole idea of people [making] choices. Sometimes they’re emotional – animal rights – sometimes it’s for health reasons. Other times maybe sustainability. Whatever. This idea that seafood and meat, to many people, taste good, it’s okay. It’s okay.

I have a very good friend; his name is Chad Sarno. He’s got a couple of plant-based companies called Wicked Healthy, and he has another one called Ocean First, which is just about seafood flavors. I’ve asked him several times, “Why is it when I go to the grocery store and I’m in that area of plant-based option, a lot of those options yell at you ‘Chicken-less fingers.’”

He said, “Listen. At the end of the day, that might change over time, but right now, we’re just making choices for ourselves. We’re not suggesting for a minute that chicken doesn’t taste good to a lot of people.” People recognize it. So chicken-less fingers, that’s the easiest way to get my kids engaged in plant-based. Now they don’t know the difference, particularly with the hot dogs, by the way.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Let me add one quick thing: I’m an African-American male, Black male. My family, every single one of them are meat eaters. I, five years ago, announced that I was vegan. We’re a Christian family, so we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. We went home for Thanksgiving and it’s like, “Whoa!” It opened my eyes to how non-plant-based my family is. As I’m looking at this wonderful spread of delicious-smelling food, but I can’t eat any of it – maybe a couple of the sides that weren’t cooked in meat. The very next year – and shout out to Mom and Dad, who will no doubt listen to this episode – they didn’t change. They still had their options. But they added to the menu some plant-based, some veggies that are cooked without meat just for me.

One of the things I offered to the family was, “Hey, one night, let’s all have Impossible burgers.” These are the plant-based burgers. My dad, who loves red meat. Loves beef. Loves pork. Loves all of that. He took one bite of it and said, “I can’t believe this is not [meat]. Come on. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

To all of those who are out there, many of your students will go on and move into the plant-based industry. Listen, there are vegans like you who need you and need your work. Also, it is incredible what we have been able to do with the taste of plant-based.

Living an Intentional Life

Kirk Bachmann: It’s an “and” not an “or.” That’s what I love about that story.

While we’re on this topic, I would love to see the connection over the last five years of being very intentional about your diet. How has that impacted your mind and your conditioning and your running? Enhanced it? Changed it? Are you at a point where you see a difference in your training because of a plant-based diet?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Absolutely. The part that I always jokingly tell people, if you typed my name into Google, the first thing that pops up as the most frequently searched thing about me is how old am I. The second is who’s my wife, and I don’t have a wife. Wherever they are, they’re looking for you. The world is looking for you, partner, so come on. Hurry up!

In terms of my age, I have celebrated some birthdays where I’m not more intentional. I used to not think about running, not think about eating, but as you keep on living, as my grandma says, this body starts to change. If I’m not careful, and I’m not intentional about it, keeping up with the pace of my day and the pace of my schedule would be exhausting. I will find myself very worn out and tired. Part of my daily conditioning is really so I can run the race of life, not even a physical race. To make sure that going to airports and going to class and being on podcasts won’t overburden my soul and spirit.

So when I became vegan, the level of intentionality and focus that it took and it takes to be vegan…I was just in West Africa. I think I mentioned this to you in an email. In Gambia, Gambia. Being vegan is difficult in some places, but it’s really hard in West Africa, partly because where I was in Gambia was a low-income village where people are so beautiful and wonderful and gracious. Kirk, families who don’t know me would meet me out in the street and welcome me into their home and give me their last bit of food. But they didn’t know I was vegan. I remember one of the families gave me this wonderful Nigerian delicacy, but it actually is a bed of rice and some sort of beef curry on top of it. Of course, I can’t eat that. But there is nothing more offensive to –

Kirk Bachmann: Not eat it.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Right. To turn away a gift. So I worked with my host to communicate to the family that I’m so [grateful] of their gifts. I ate as much as I could of the rice. But I’m saying this because the level of intentionality that it takes to think about my diet and what I eat transports me to other places in my life or other parts of my life. Because I’m thinking about when I’m going to eat and what I’m going to eat, I also have right in that same space, “When am I going to run today?”

Although I’ve got to head to the airport, get to the hotel. Okay, when I put my bag down, I’ve got to make sure that I get in 30 minutes of running. And I don’t like to run on treadmills, although I will. I like to run outside. Later today, I’ll go to Cleveland, Ohio. Sometimes when you go to Cleveland, it’s snowy and it’s icy. If I can’t run outside, I will plan to run in the hotel, but I’ve got to make sure that the hotel has a gym and the gym is open. All these pieces of structuring my day – and I literally schedule all of it. I put it on my schedule so when I land, I might get a text that throws me off, I don’t forget, “Uh-oh. I’ve got to go run.”

Being intentional, scheduling it, and just like I schedule time to talk with you and meet with my students, I have scheduled time for what we call self-care. That I’m eating. That I’m resting. That I’m running. What I’ve found is people ask me all the time, “Oh my gosh! You just came from Africa. You landed back, and now you’re on a podcast. Then you’re going to fly to Ohio. Are you exhausted?” No, because I think the care of myself and of my body.

Understanding that I try not to exhaust myself and stay out super late and deny myself rest or peace of mind. When that happens, when my bandwidth is exhausted, I have found that my voice is weak. My body is susceptible to all sorts of fluid and disease. I’m tired and I’m drowsy. Nothing is a worse combination for a keynote, a public lecture, a classroom instructor, than a weak voice, a weak body, and you’re sleepy. Because this is my temple, this is my instrument, this is my offering to the world, I’ve got to take serious care of it.

I’ll close with this. I once read that some of the world’s greatest pianists and musicians take out insurance policies on their voices, on their hands, because that is their moneymaker. That is their gift.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s their tool.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: That’s their tool. Because this body is so important to doing the good work that I think is so important in the world, I’ve got to be very intentional and structured about how I take care of it.

After Covid Experiences

Kirk Bachmann: Such great advice. Let’s talk about some of that great work. My team and I watched the brilliant TEDx talks. Funny, charismatic, and engaging. The Pursuit of Belonging. So many valuable mentions that I know listeners resonated with then and will now again as we talk about it. I’m just curious. I purposely didn’t do any Google search. I listened to the TED talk a couple of times.

I remember the one topic that came up. You mentioned that there were 19 million students in college. At the time, which is about a decade ago, 55 percent of them completed their studies. I’m really curious: without snooping myself, where are those numbers today? I read so much about young people not going to college, not finishing college, trying to find other paths. Are the numbers increasing? Have they increased? Are people finishing school, in your research?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: That’s a great question. Wow! It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since that talk. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

To your particular question, we have seen some changes over the course of time. If there were 19 million back in 2011 or about a decade ago when I gave that talk, we have since then witnessed an apex or a pinnacle. We hit 21 million at some point, and then of course, all of us will be quite familiar with the devastation of 2020. The pandemic. Colleges and universities were forced to close. Some were forced to shut off access to campus, pivot all their teaching and learning online. Some students do not prefer to learn online. Some of them find online teaching and learning very difficult to navigate. Some of them did it, but they lost loved ones. Lost jobs. Their aspirations and goals for the future changed as a result of that.

We have seen that since the pandemic, our enrollment numbers are declining. Fewer students are electing to go to college.

I think the other thing that we’re keenly aware of is that we still have challenges when it comes to student success. Even though some students are choosing to go to college – two-year, four-year – to seek a bachelor’s, and associate’s, or even some who are going for micro-credentials and certificates, that many students who start their post-secondary journey do not complete it.

Now, the causes for that departure are very different. I know we’re going to get to some of this, but one other piece that’s new that was not even imagined back when I gave that TEDx talk. I have a special issue of a journal that I am editing right now that is looking at what I call ACEs. A-C-E in educational and psychological literature historically has meant Adverse Childhood Experiences. It refers to young kids who grew up with a disability or grew up and one of their parents was incarcerated. They grew up and experienced some traumatic experience, like the loss of a parent or a grandparent. What we’ve known for many decades is adverse childhood experiences can have short-term and long-term impacts for students in terms of their educational, psychological, and developmental outcomes.

Well, playing with that acronym, A-C-E, and thinking about Covid, I am editing this special issue of a journal that looks at After Covid Experiences. Because what I believe is we have all changed, Kirk, in ways that we know and that we’ve not known. Listen, before the pandemic, I did a lot of travel, a lot of flying. I was around lots and lots of big crowds and small crowds. Now, post-pandemic, though my job requires me to do it, and even my vocation, my larger purpose and calling in the world requires me to do it, I am very mindful and at times hesitant. Even at times, I have anxiety and fear around being around large crowds, especially large crowds of people who are unmasked because of my experience in the pandemic. Pre-pandemic I would have never thought about it. Post-pandemic, I am different in how I engage large crowds.

After Covid Experiences, this special issue, is really calling attention to the fact that some students start college and leave now because of the short- and long-term impacts of covid on the student, on their psychology, on their mindset, on their readiness for college. Students get into college and they start thinking about, “Wow! I thought I’ve always wanted to work in this field or get this job. But after covid….”

For instance, I have a protege, a mentee of mine, who actually has always wanted to go into the hospitality industry until covid. During covid – they grew up in Detroit, Michigan – they lost so many loved ones. After the Flint, Michigan water crisis, and that was compounded by covid, they did a total 180, Kirk. No longer hospitality. They are interested in public health. I know people who are in public health who probably want to go into hospitality.

You get into college, and you go, “Wow! My goals, my aspirations, my thoughts about the kind of problems I want to address and solve and change.” And for that reason people make all sorts of decisions that may impact their success in college. We have to study more, learn more about this, so we can see how we can then help more students be successful.

Importance of Finances, and When They are not Enough

Kirk Bachmann: You’ve mentioned several factors that can contribute to whether a student goes to college or not. I love the short courses, the micro-credentialing. That’s real today.

I’m wondering how much – even if a student starts school, how big of a role do finances really play in persistence, in the ability to get to the finish line? Are you finding – are you seeing – we’re seeing some of that, where students take a step back, decide what’s important in life. “I’m either going to go in and grab a job because finances are that important.” Or, I’m going to pursue this education – healthcare for example – because I want to make a difference after the finish line? I want to give back. Is it all over the board right now? Is it different than before the pandemic?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Let me offer two thoughts here. I just want to affirm what you said. We know from decades of research, some of which is my own, that finances do play a role. Finances can be particularly important for some of our most under-served, historically under-represented groups. That might be students who are first in their family to go to college, or to go to a technical or trade school, students who are racial and ethnic minorities, and economically disadvantaged students, as well as students who live in certain geographies – who live in rural or urban inner-city kinds of settings.

So finances manage because it turns out whether you go to Escoffier or you come to Illinois State. I was at Virginia Union. Last week I spoke at Princeton University. It turns out, guess what? All of the places I just named usually have a price tag associated with studying there. You’ve got to pay tuition. Tuition can be minimal or it can be very monumental. Finances play a role.

But here is the other thing that connects to finances. Most of our curricula have what I call hidden costs. That is, in order to do well – and again I’m staying in my own lane but trying to reach across into yours, Kirk. I would imagine if I were to come to Escoffier and try to study, that if I could pay the tuition or the bill, that in order for me to really perfect my craft, I might benefit from practicing at home. That depends and presumes that I’ve got a place of permanent residence, or a place where I can go and practice. And that place is well-equipped with a decent kitchen. That kitchen might be stocked with pots and pans and the kinds of spices and ingredients that I would need to put together. All sorts of costs embedded in the preparation, the training, and the practice.

It’s not just for those that might go in to study at Escoffier. I am an education professor. Many of my students, even if they can pay their tuition, their preparation is enriched if they can do research with me. The research is not just to sit on a shelf. It’s to disseminate. The hidden costs are the student has to have the time to be able to work with the instructor, and not be so enthralled or so engaged with having to work long hours, around the clock. That they also have some disposable income to go with me to conferences, to present. Or that the university, the institution, has resources available to help the student do so. So finances matter.

But here’s the take home point from the TEDx talk. Finances are important. We must admit that. We must make sure that as institutions and as leaders, we’re doing all we can to create equity when it comes to access to our institutions. And most importantly, to the professions that we prepare people for. I believe that all professions should reflect the diversity that we have in the world. Whether you work in education or the food business industry, you ought to see people that look like you. But while we’re doing that, finances alone are not enough.

There are students who can afford it, or can get the aid to fund the education. But they get there, and for some reason, they still don’t feel like they are a part of our communities. That they are accepted as they are. That their interests and aspirations for how they want to use the education is not valued by faculty, valued by the instructors, valued by the institution. That, if you put it all together, is what I call “sense of belonging.” Sense of belonging actually becomes a more powerful level, one over which we have some control. Two, it is really able to produce positive outcomes for our students in ways that finances alone cannot.

How to Assess Belonging

Kirk Bachmann: We’re beautifully in sync. Perfect, perfect segue into this concept of this sense of belonging, which really moved me. Let’s start at a very high level. What are some ways that we can analyze this sense of belonging in education? Just in this education space, let’s stay there.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: I say all the time that sense of belonging is a feeling. That’s what makes it frustrating. It’s not a temperature check.

Kirk Bachmann: You can’t check the box.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Can’t check a box. You can’t take one of those meat thermometers and impale it into the person and see if they belong or not. It actually is far more complex and fussy than that. But that’s not to say that it is immeasurable, and that it is necessarily imprecise. It is a feeling that reflects the extent to which people feel connected to others, that they feel cared about, that they feel that they play an important role in the group, and that their contributions are valued. And that they – not just their contributions – but the person and their contributions are valued authentically, just as they are, by others in the group.

How do you start to measure that? I know I have tons of stories. I have illustrations of this, but sometimes it’s as simple as asking the person. “Do you feel like you belong here? Do you feel like you’re a part of the group?” People can answer that question.

There are other ways that we can assess belonging. I tell people – administrators, leaders, all the time – sometimes it’s not just asking people. It’s a harder skill that we must use, and that is listening. Listening to people’s words. When people feel a sense of belonging, they actually use associative and inclusive language. You start saying things like, “Escoffier is our school. This is my classroom. You are my instructor. I am associating You and I.” There’s a sense of ownership and connection. This is OUR campus. This is OUR classroom, and OUR course. This is how WE do things here. Inclusive. I’m always including myself. I’m associated with you, and I’m talking in very communal ways.

When people do not feel a sense of belonging, they use dissociative language, exclusive language. They start saying things like, “How do you all do stuff around here? Why do you do it this way? Can you tell me where YOUR classroom is? What are your expectations of me? What do you want out of me in your class?” Listen to that. It’s always “You are separate from me.” If we would listen – and it’s not just words. Sometimes people write this way. When academic advisers are sitting down with students and they start talking in this way, I think it becomes a cue to their belonging. It also can give us some insights into some interventions that are necessary.

Lastly, I think a way of getting at belonging other than asking and listening is really starting to look at the correlates of belonging. This is what we know from research and is most of what I talk about in the book. When students feel a sense of belonging, they show up. They come to class. When they’re in class, they’re engaged. Engagement is demonstrated through the raising of the hand and wanting to be a part of the conversation and wanting to be part of the illustration or demonstration in class. They are ready and willing to meet you outside of class to ask questions. Listen, they’re not afraid to ask the questions that they might have because they feel like a bona fide member of the learning environment. And they feel respected and celebrated just as they are. They’re not afraid of raising their hand and wondering if Instructor Kirk will see me as a stereotype, or if he will judge me as foolish or stupid or dumb. I’m not worried in that way. Because belonging creates this space of freedom and liberation where I know my membership is secure. My sense of being a part of the group is intact. Because of that, there is enormous freedom to then explore, to make mistakes, to learn, to try an experiment.

If I were a person in a school of any type and wondering, “I wonder if my students feel a sense of belonging,” I might ask them. I might listen to their words and look at their writing. But I might also pay attention to attendance records and patterns. I might start observing how they’re engaging in the classroom. And when they’re in groups, working with their peers, getting them to report out, how did that feel?

So many times when we are engaged in education, we’re focused on the bottom line. What is their grade? What’s the retention rate? What’s their persistence? What’s the graduation rate? But we rarely pay equal attention to people’s experience in the process of it. Yeah, you graduate, but did you enjoy the experience of learning and the process to graduation? I think that’s where we get to notions of belonging and how do you measure it.

The Value of Human Connection

Kirk Bachmann: As I listen, I’m thinking, it changes, too, over time. As you grow up, from being an elementary or middle school student where self esteem is really not an issue. Teacher asks a question, every hand goes up because they may or may not know the answer. They just want to talk. But as you become an adult learning or even in high school, self esteem plays into it. This whole idea of feeling a sense of belonging. You said, “When students feel a sense of belonging, they show up.” That is powerful. I’m going to quote-unquote there.

I read in Medium an article that you wrote or were interviewed for. You said, quote, “Sense of belonging is a basic need, a human right, in my opinion. And what most educators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders miss is the powerful role that belonging plays in student and organizational success.” So for students who are attending schools, vocational schools like Escoffier or anywhere – Illinois State, or even parents who want to support their children while in school, what can they do? What can I do, Terrell, to foster a keen sense of belonging?

Recent years, I’ve coached my faculty to be comfortable being facilitators of learning. It used to be 20 years ago, you had to come to culinary school because knowledge was kept in the toque. You had to come. You had to become a sponge. But today, knowledge is everywhere. It’s on the internet. It’s listening to you and I chat. I just encourage our faculty to just become part of the process, engage in the learning, go back and forth.

I’m curious: is there more that we can do, that I can do, that my teachers can do, that you can do, to foster that sense of belonging? We’re probably spending way too much time on it, but it’s brilliant. And it’s so important. I keep coming back to it. You’re an educator. Grades are important. It’s the bottom line. But this idea of, do you feel a sense of belonging? Do you want to come to school every day because that’s where the learning is taking place? What more can we do? Tough question. I apologize.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: No, it’s a great question, and I’m going to pick up where you left off. I appreciate your own very broad perspective on education. I think John Dewey, the great education theorist once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “all experience is education.” This was many years before there was artificial intelligence like Siri and Alexa and Google. When I was in West Africa, my host family would tell me they were going to take me into the Brikama which is a big market there. I said, “Brikama, wow! Where is it?” They said, “Google it.” Even in West Africa, they’re like, “Google it!” Google has a Ph. D. Google is a master instructor.

The point of this is, because of the ubiquitous nature of information – it’s everywhere – and most young kids ask Google, Alexa, and Siri before they ever would ask us as teachers, I think it does change our role in the teaching and learning process. There are still sometimes where we will still stand on the stage and be a sage and offer information and lectures. There are still very specific formulas and theories, both in the food industry and as well as in education that students must master in order to be experts at their craft.

That said, there’s a lot more information available to students on a click of a button or the swipe of a page that doesn’t require us to know all things. But it does require us to be available to students, sometimes to vet the authenticity and the accuracy of this information. As I say to my students all the time, “There’s tons of information out there. It’s not all good information. It’s also not all accurate information.” So they still need to connect with the experts, connect with the faculty and the instructors in the vetting of the accuracy and the sufficiency, and the credibility of all these sources. We become much more – not sages on the stage – but guides on the side who help the student in their journey.

I think the other thing that we can do uniquely that these artificial intelligences cannot do. Students will come to Escoffier and come to Illinois State, and come to schools and community colleges for lots of different reasons. One of the most distinctive characteristics of your learning institution and mine is that it brings a human in contact with another human, with other humans, for the process of teaching and learning. I Google stuff every day. I talk to Siri every day, but no matter what, they’re not human. When the student comes to the schoolhouse, it’s not just because education happens there happens there, because education happens on Google. It does happen with Siri. But it is that there is a value added of this experience that we offer when the student comes in contact with a human that they cannot easily get from Google or Siri.

Here is one of the things I think we as educators can do to make the learning environment more humanizing and also boost belonging. First of all, learn their names. Learn their names and their interests and their aspirations, not just because it’s a check on a list, but because we care about them. We want to help them get to their ultimate and final destination: who they are becoming. So get to know their names, their vulnerabilities, their aspirations, what excites them.

One of my friends, who is a teacher, he calls it the “rose and the thorn” for his students. He opens every class asking his students, “What’s your rose?” That’s something that happened today or this week that you’re excited about. It’s a lovely thing. What’s a thorn? Something that was a little frustrating this week or got in the way, maybe this morning. You can have one, the other, or both. And this, he listens to and he affirms for students that it is frustrating when it’s raining. You got rained on on your way to school. That it is frustrating when you wasted 15 minutes looking for your book bag because you put it in the wrong place. That, for every person who’s ever been frustrated, you just wanted to know that someone else empathizes with your situation and understands it. It makes it very human to have those moments. I think learning their names, getting to know them, their aspirations, affirming their experiences: these are lots of ways we can start to foster belonging.

I’ll close with, as instructors, when we also take steps to make sure that we’re not just collecting this information about students to put on an index card and file away. But we use that information in the instructional moment. Lots of my students in education aspire to – and I’m going to come to this because I know we’re going to wrap up soon – they aspire to work in schools. Many of them want to be college presidents. Some of them, believe it or not, have histories in the food industry, but want to run their own –

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Entrepreneur.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Entrepreneurial program. They want to train people in the hospitality industry, so they come to education to get the training around human development and pedagogy and curriculum development to take it back to your industry. Although I have not worked in the food service industry and the food enterprise, I have to study, think about it, learn what your curriculum is. What are the problems that your students would address? So that when I’m teaching in my classroom, I’m issuing quizzes and tests, I can use examples that would resonate with the personal interests of my students. I cannot tell you how many students come alive when some example that I use in the classroom deals directly with something that they want to do in the future. They’re like, “Oh my gosh! That made it so…” listen to this, “relevant. Man! You really are listening.”

When we make learning relevant, when we make it connected to the passions and the problems that students aspire to address, we are fostering the conditions for belonging. Here’s what I’ve found in my research. If you can do that, they get engaged, they come to class, and they do better.

Leaders as Learners

Kirk Bachmann: It’s almost a sort of needs analysis. It’s just so important to meet our students where they are. The only way you’re going to do that is to ask and to listen.

I apologize, too. We are going long, and I don’t care because it’s a riveting conversation. I’m about to bring up the most exciting part of the chat that I was just mesmerized by. Another quote. Terrell, you said, “New leaders must…” – I love this – “accelerate learning, secure early wins, create strong alliances.” It’s like a team! It’s like coaching a baseball team. “As a learner, new leaders must take steps to learn faster than they lead.” You mentioned this in your article, “Leadership Lesson: Learning to Lead and Leading to Learn.” As I thought about it, to me, it’s most akin to one of the all-time favorite reads, “The First 90 Days.” Any new employee, first 90 days. In the time that we have left, and this definitely means we need to have a second podcast because we didn’t even get to everything! Can you elaborate? I’m just fascinated by this concept of accelerating the learning, or accelerate learning. Brilliant!

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Thank you. Yeah. That particular blog I wrote came out of my own lived experience as a new provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Union University. I had been a vice president for academic student affairs at a previous institution, but in this particular role, it was also during the pandemic. I started the role in 2020. We all know that’s when the world sort of was on fire. Here it is. I’m in a relatively familiar seat, but I’m in unprecedented times. The experiences and lessons that I learned previously no longer seemed to apply because I’m leading an institution that I actually had never stepped foot on. I’m trying to work with a colleague to write the protocol for how we will enforce physical distancing and face coverings and mitigate risk for people who I’ve never met person-to-person or face-to-face. It was just a really surprisingly, potentially frustrating, but it was a surprisingly wild time.

Here’s what I learned from it. One, as a leader – and you exactly go it right – sometimes as a leader, you are positioned to coach people. I don’t have to know everything. I just have to know, What is our vision? What is our mission? Where are we going? What are the core operations, and do I have good people in those seats? How do I make sure that I keep the business moving with the right flow and momentum and cadence toward the same direction? It’s back to where we began. It’s about music, orchestrating various pieces and keeping them in harmony. And I can do that while I am also learning about crisis management, new insights about the covid pandemic. I’m learning new aspects of the business that I had not overseen before.

What I learned is you have to accelerate that learning. People are looking up to you to lead every day. That must mean that somehow over the course of your days, you are learning quickly. This is for everyone in your listening audience, especially those who aspire to leadership regardless of the industry. You will be a lifelong learner as a leader. But learning, as we’ve been saying, can’t only happen in the classroom. I completed a second Master’s in psychology after the pandemic. The hardest part of being in my Master’s program – and I’ve got a Ph. D. – but the hardest part of that second Master’s was trying to be in a classroom while I’m also leading a campus. Sometimes learning can’t be restricted to formal learning environments. You must learn how to accelerate your learning. That means creating for yourself your own daily regimen or curriculum. For those who will move through K-12 and higher ed, you’ll know a lot about how to build a syllabus because you’ve watched teachers do it your whole life. Then you become a lifelong learner where you have to build your syllabus for life. What will you dream that will have an impact on you? What podcast, other than, clearly, The Ultimate Dish, do you need to listen to that will enrich your learning and prepare you for tomorrow?

I started realizing, Wow! I’m a chief academic officer. But a chief academic officer, leading during the pandemic, working with the president and the CO. Kirk, I spent many more days talking about revenue generation, because if I’m closing off access to campus, that means people aren’t in the bookstore purchasing items. People aren’t at football games and baseball games purchasing food and items. I’m not generating revenue, but the institution still needs revenue. So now the chief academic officer must be entrepreneurial – I’m never going to come to this. Hopefully, I’ll tie it in – entrepreneurial, and think about generating revenue, creating cost savings, running an efficient organization. These are all financial business-related concepts that are not my training. So the question became, literally, while sitting in that seat, “How do I get an MBA without going to school? How do I celebrate my learning about these business concepts very quickly? Because I’ve got to know it by tomorrow – or at least by next week.”

So I started putting together the books, the podcasts, the TED talks, sometimes even the people. Special shout out to all of the faculty at Virginia Union who work in the school of business, Sydney Lewis School of Business, who would answer my phone calls and my emails late at night. They would say things like, “I’ve got a question about how do we monetize certain assets. I know there’s a formula to this. Can you point me to it?” I don’t have time to take an 18-week course, but they would give me guidance, links, that – listen – as a leader, I had to follow the links. There’s a metaphor there. Sometimes as the leader, you must follow the advice of experts, to go and read, listen to the talk, take your notes, so that you can accelerate learning.

Listen, even when you learn it all, you’re going to fail. But as my president, Dr. Hakim J. Lucas at Virginia Union often said, “Hurry up, provost, and fail. But when you fail, [fail] forward.” Fail with some sort of progress toward the goal, so then we can course correct and hit ultimate success. I’ll stop there.

But I think accelerating your learning and building a regimen or a curriculum for your life and failing forward are some take away messages for all leaders.

Do Good Work

Kirk Bachmann: And TikTok reels. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken so many notes. Absolutely love it.

We are getting towards the end. I would be remiss if I didn’t allow at least for the elevator speech on Do Good Work Educational Consulting Group. What do you want to tell us? Fascinating. Beautiful website. Incredible work. Go.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Thank you so much, Kirk. Do Good Work. I started the company as a way to really build some solidarity and identity around work that grew out of my work as a professor. I was writing, teaching, and started presenting at conferences. Then, because of the success I found there, I started being in high demand, especially after my TEDx talk, for workshops and speeches. As I just said, I went to West Africa and Gambia to speak at the University of Gambia.

Because of that, I have had opportunities to do research projects and advise presidents and principals and superintendents on strategic planning. I’ve assembled a really wonderful team – so shout out to the Do Good Work team of people who are committed to creating equity and justice in the world, largely through the work that we do in education across our industries. We do it in a way that is not just focusing on access. It’s not just about getting people into our schools, our programs, our certificates, and our universities, but it’s that they can find success there. Success – part of it is graduation and persistence, but success is also about thriving and achieving their dreams. Do Good Work is unapologetically committed to those aims. Check out our website: www.dogoodworkllc.org. We are @dogoodworkLLC on all things social media.

For those that will watch this episode, you’ll see me. Listen, I tell people all the time, “I’m going to be a professor probably as long as I can imagine.” But at some point, like my grandmother did, I’m going to retire from this thing from education. I’m really excited about that because it connects back to the kind of important work that you do, Kirk, at Escoffier. I am a person who aspires, dreams, that one day I will own my own local coffee shop. And in my coffee shop, I will create a space of belonging and community, primarily for historically under-represented, under-served artists. I’m talking musicians, spoken word artists, visual artists, painters, who come from all walks of life who want to share their gifts and their talents with others over coffee. That will be crafted at the hands of yours truly.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh! I love it. I’m not making this up! My dream is similar. It’s a cafe. It’s more of a cycling cafe, but again, it’s a place. It would probably be called Community. I just want people to have a place to come, and if they ride their bikes, even better. Absolutely beautiful.

So the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. I’m not going to let you go until you talk to me about plant-based and what, in your mind, is the ultimate dish?

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: For those who listen to the episode in the audience. So Kirk, an hour before we started the show, gave me a little preamble or preview of this question. I’ve been thinking about it in my mind. I’m going to close with a shout out to anyone who can put together a vegan crab cake. There is one in New Orleans that is just masterful. I’m so excited because at the end of this week – I’m heading to Cleveland today – but at the end of this week, I’ll go to speak in New Orleans. I’ll go speak first, but then after that, I’m rushing over to have that vegan crab cake.

But I want to do it this way, Kirk, because you told me it doesn’t have to be something that I eat. It could also be something I remember. Growing up in Trenton, North Carolina, coastal Carolina with my grandmother. My grandma made the best pancakes ever. They were sort of fried in this black heavy skillet on her stove. My grandma had this way of making food into a live performance. Kirk, if I may, my grandma would wake me up in the morning. She’d bring me into the kitchen. She’d put me in the stool by her stove. I can still sort of feel the heat of the flames on me when I think about this story.

She would crack open an egg and start scrambling in one pan, but then she would take her mix – and of course you and your students know this far better than I – but she would take her pancake mix, add in her secret ingredient. I still don’t know all the things that she would add. She’d stir them up.

But while doing it, early in the morning, sometimes seven, seven-thirty, while scrambling eggs and mixing together pancakes, my grandma would break out into song. “This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine.” She’d pour it into the pan, start making sure that the pancakes are my favorite little, small, silver dollar size. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” I don’t know if she went to Escoffier, but while making pancakes, she’d take the pan and flip it. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”

At the end of the song would be the most beautiful pancake. That for me, as an ultimate dish, that is the light. I can still see those beautiful golden pancakes from my grandma. And they mean so much to me.

Kirk Bachmann: What a beautiful…! Best ultimate dish ever. First pancake ultimate dish ever. And the first beautiful voice ultimate dish ever. Absolutely spectacular. Terrell, can I just tell you, when students feel a sense of belonging, they show up. Thank you to your parents. Thank you to your grandma. Keep on living. Thank you for being here, my friend. Unbelievable.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn: Thank you, my friend.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

Recent Podcasts

Request More Information
Campus of Interest*
Program of Interest*

Clicking the "Send Request" button constitutes your express request, and your express written consent, to be contacted via phone, text, and/or emails by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts at the number(s)/email you provided, regarding furthering your education and enrolling. You understand that these calls may be generated using an automated technology. You are not required to agree to receive automated calls, texts, or emails as a condition of enrolling at Escoffier. You can unsubscribe at any time or request removal of street address, phone number, email address via Escoffier website.

Is Culinary School Right For You?
Take This Short Quiz