Building Trust to Increase College Student Engagement

Our society is at an impasse currently when it comes to trust.

We need to be able to come together to solve tough issues, but at times we can’t even listen to what each other is saying without being cynical and dismissive.

As elaborated on in a recent Freakonomics podcast episode, social trust has been on the decline in the US, and very much was on display in the 2016 presidential election (as well as the new administration).

Social trust is often referred to having faith in people, or believing that other people having their own sets of values, including honesty and integrity.

Social capital is often thought of an individual’s’ network, their relationships, and mutual social trusts that enable a group of people or community to function well together.

A great quote from researcher Rachel Botsman, who studies how technology transforms trust, captures the current conundrum of social trust,

“How do we trust people enough to get in a car with a total stranger and yet we don’t trust a banking executive?”

As humans, we need trust for our society and communities to thrive.

The same goes for the environments we aim to create on college campuses.

Campuses are microcosms of society. While they tend to be more open-minded due to a smaller, more diverse population, many campuses still struggle to maintain a lot of social capital, which is the noticeable positive impact of social trust on a community. This could be increased involvement in events, programs, and offices. It could take the shape of less bullying, as well as generally more happy and satisfied students who feel welcome and safe at campus.

The big question is:

How do we foster more social trust between our students?

It’s an arduous journey but it is an important one for the future of our campuses.

Building Trust

In Onora O’Neill’s TED Talk called What we don’t understand about trust, O’Neill explains how many people feel trust is on the decline in society.

And she explains that trust varies. Sometimes we trust people to keep a conversation going because they’re extroverted, but we know they can’t keep a secret. We trust our favorite college professor, but we’d never trust them to parallel park.

Trust is abstract. Most people are judged on their trustworthiness in each relationship, rather than their trust overall. People often put ‘trust’ into a person, and then monitor if they’ve kept their secret or word.

What does it mean to be trustworthy?

According to O’Neill, it means to be competent, reliable, and honest.

Some people are less trustworthy because they’ll forget to pay a bill or they will forget to call a friend. They could be competent and honest, but not as reliable.

When we think about building trust with students, we must be all three of these things in order to build trust in all of our one-on-one relationships. Then there are students who may never interact with, they only have their friend or acquaintances’ opinions to rely on, or judging you based off your social media profile. That’s where social trust comes in, and where some students will always have an innate faith in professionals, or won’t.

One way you can show trust is letting students know you care about them. This could as simple as by sending them a thoughtful note or e-mail. Apathy breeds disrespect and aloofness, which are barriers to building a more trusting environment. Institutions are already facing all sorts challenges in the current political climate, and as scandals impact the general public’s positive point of view due to media, it’s somewhat inescapable.

A way to have your administration show they care to students is listening to their voices.

No matter which way you choose to show you care, it’s crucial for students to know you care enough to listen, validate their concerns, and do what you can to solve problems. You may be able to give context to decisions and consider their input when making future choices (even invite them to sit on a divisional committee). When we become more neighborly and communicative, students will trust we’re making the right calls and have their best interests in mind.

Trusting Each Other

Students come to college awash in new situations, new environments, and new people. Some students embrace this as an opportunity to learn and grow. Others recoil and are skeptical of change and distrustful of what they don’t know or understand.

As educators, we can help bridge those gaps by getting students together to learn from each other in safe spaces. Through structured and guided programs as well as serving as intermediaries when disputes come up, we can facilitate learning for our students that allow them to build trust with their peers.

O’Neill mentions one of the best ways to build trust is to be vulnerable and facilitating an open and safe environment. This can be as simple as icebreakers, or as involved as diversity training activities.

Trust can be hard to build and easy to break, but we can help students understand and empathize with one another. They can assume the best from their fellow students, rather than assume others are out to get them or that everything is a competition.

Using Technology As a Tool to Connect

At the outset, many people believe technology is pulling us apart.

In my eyes, it is doing the exact opposite. It has the potential to bring us all closer together. We can communicate more seamlessly than ever before with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

A good example of how this can work well for students is outlined by Aziz Ansari, in his recent book, Modern Romance. He advocates for using technology to facilitate in person meet ups in the context of romantic relationships. The same applies to platonic and professional relationships. We shouldn’t do all of our communicating entirely online. We should be using it as an asset to help us come together.

With technology, we can also see what is happening around us, who is going, and what to expect, which can help with nurturing involvement. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there, especially if you’re new to campus, and student engagement tools like Presence can help smooth that over.

Trust Impacts Engagement

We live in a time where we’re all more connected than ever but we struggle to truly find the good and trust each other. College students should be shown the importance of social capital in society and how to work to be more open to people around them. This has far reaching implications, not just locally but globally as well as a long sustained positive impact for our country. In the short term, your campus can be a more happy, engaged, and welcoming place. Students will be more apt to learn and grow from each other as they know that others care about them and aren’t out to take advantage. Your campus community will come together to have fun, comfort one another, sustain traditions, and make memories.

Through diligent efforts, utilizing the right tools, and having civil conversations, we can change the current trend towards distrust and cynicism. It may be a hard path to start, but it is a necessary one for so many reasons.

Looking to continue the conversation? Share your story with us at @HigherEd_Geek and @themoderncampus!

Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin Ramsdell (he/him) is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations. Learn how we can help get your students involved.