Belonging Is a Big Deal

Julia Pfeifer
About the author : Julia Pfeifer

Vice President of Growth and Consumer Experience Marketing, Sodexo Campus Julia Pfeifer is the Senior Director of Growth and Consumer Experience Marketing for Sodexo Campus. She is a proud female, Asian-American leader with an overall joie-de-vivre that fuels her role engaging students and makes a positive impact on their everyday.

Published on : 4/12/24
  • Growing up on Maryland’s Eastern shore, I didn’t exactly look like the other kids. I was sometimes called the wrong name because there was another Asian girl about my age in town. I was also adopted. Oof- a double whammy for a shrimp-sized minority with Coke-bottle glasses.

    During those years, I wanted to fit in … or more accurately, blend in, trying to seem less different. I suppose being outgoing has always helped me to carve out social circles and connect, but my minority status was like a skeleton I tried to keep in a closet that everyone had a key to. I remember answering questions wrong in class sometimes just to off-set stereotypes.

    When I arrived at my college, I met my roommate, sparked a connection, and we immediately headed off to the dining hall for a meal that started a lifelong friendship. Suddenly, I was in an environment with more diversity than I had ever seen, more options and more freedom. While I was still a minority on that campus, I could be my true self, accepted and unashamed to be different. My university experience afforded me the perspective of seeing intentional inclusion, where belonging grows when everyone is welcome and included because of who they are, not despite it. 

    It’s awesome now to be part of that intentional inclusion work as the Senior Director of Growth and Consumer Experience Marketing for Sodexo Campus. I’m not alone in my dedication to intentional inclusion. With recruitment, retention, and student wellbeing on the line, I’m so proud to partner with colleges and universities. Campus to campus, the work differs, but the goal is the same: for students to feel they belong – to find connection, to feel valued and a sense of purpose.


    Caring and Number Crunching

    When I meet with our marketing and dining services teams at colleges and universities around the country, I’m blown away by their care for students. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, because I have the data to back it up (our team’s average customer service score is 4.2/5).

    That translates to an 84% satisfaction rate among students who interact with Sodexo campus dining team members—a number on par with or higher than the very best customer service-focused restaurants and foodservice operations outside of higher education.

    I see two important reasons for this level of satisfaction. First, we stay ahead of student trends, needs, and interests by investing in cohort-generational research. Second, we work to see, hear, and know individual students every day on every campus – in short, we care.


    Challenging Times

    Findings from our 2022-2023 Sodexo Student Lifestyle Survey are distressing.

    • Current students are increasingly unsatisfied with their social lives (69% in 2020 to 55% today).
    • 59% of the high school student cohort we interviewed made clear that they are (already) worried about being overwhelmed and anxious in college.
    • There is a 50% increase in feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
    • Among students considering dropping out, 60% cited mental health concerns as their top reason, surpassing financial stress (the top concern in 2017).


    Students Know What They Need

    How do we foster cultures of belonging when students are feeling lonelier (53%) and more isolated (47%) than ever?

    The students themselves illuminate the path forward. I see students who are incredibly self-aware, acknowledging that they need help with socialization and life skills.

    I love seeing these bright sparks!

    They are even approaching “fit” with this sense of self-awareness. More students are looking at in-state schools so they can explore their independence while being close enough to the support they find at home. Overall, they are less interested in rankings and prestige, instead prioritizing campuses that feel friendly and welcoming.


    Boosting Belonging

    While it wasn’t shocking that our research confirmed that on-campus dining is the #1 tool for student engagement, I was both surprised (and relieved!) that students overwhelmingly confirmed (87%) that they view eating together as socializing.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting campus dining is a cure-all, particularly for mental and emotional health needs worsened by the pandemic. Comprehensive on-campus mental health, inclusion and wrap-around supports for achievement, retention, engagement, and graduation are vital.

    But don’t underestimate how we can be the hype team for the students we serve. Perhaps I recall times in my life I didn’t feel rallied behind, and I want our students to feel nurtured and cheered into success. My marketing team is all-in on inclusion—we applied our collective data and care to create our 2023-2024 Engagement Plan: Spark. Beyond events and experiences that foster camaraderie and togetherness, which empowers students to be the spark—stretch comfort zones, open doors to leadership opportunities, and inspire contagious connection amongst their peers. 

    Since the program launched, we’ve seen incredible new opportunities for students to connect and find that sense of belonging. On one campus, the dining team hosted a Spark Community Table dinner to welcome new students. A small cohort of students were invited to attend the event. As part of their RSVP, each student named an ingredient from a recipe they associated with home or family. The campus executive chef used these ingredients to prepare the evening’s meal, which was served family-style in a cozy, intimate setting that put students at ease. Conversation flowed freely as students connected by sharing the stories and memories behind their suggested ingredients.  


    Light it up

    What is evidence of belonging?

    For someone like me who grew up wanting nothing more than the world to really see me, belonging isn’t just a buzz word; it’s walking into a room and being greeted by name. It holds true for our students; it’s campus cashiers and chefs who take the time to greet them, by name, ask about their exams, hug them when they graduate.

    There are so many ways to show up for students, to spark connection.

    One of our students stopped by a Sub Connection location on campus five days a week. He ordered the same turkey sandwich, but mostly he visited with his favorite staff member there. He had an extra ticket for graduation and invited her to go. She went! He told everyone how much she meant to him. They shared how much their friendship meant, and she gave him a lunchbox as a graduation gift.  

    We boost belonging with a basket of dates waiting for Muslim students at sunset during Ramadan, when they break the fast before their iftar meal. We boost belonging with industry-leading allergen free menus that allow students to dine deliciously and safely with their friends. We boost belonging with meals that give students a taste of their friends’ cultures as well as flavors that remind them of their own homes.


    More Sparks

    We will continue to discover and share practical steps we can take in collaboration with our partners.

    Now, that work looks like reimagining meal plans around today’s student needs. The 2022-2023 Sodexo Student Lifestyle Survey reinforced the importance of meal plans. Regardless of the type, students on meal plans were more engaged with campus resources, including career services. We need to keep improving meal plans to foster this engagement that directly supports belonging.

    Our current and future work also includes harnessing technology to grow convenience and connection, two ways to fuel belonging. Students need time and access to socialize—we will always focus on technology that eliminates barriers to care and genuine connection.

    For me, the dining hall provided one of the “sparks” I needed to be successful in my college journey, yes, but also in life. Many of these friends are still a significant part of my life today, which makes it even more important to me that our team engages in more intentional research and sharing of best practices. Our teams provide that needed smile that lets students know they will always have a seat at our table where they are seen, known, and cared for … where they belong.