monk in saffron robe sits on altar surrounded by bowls of fruit and other offerings
March 20, 2023

A Sense of Belonging in Unfamiliar Communities

Discovering a connection between inclusion and learning
by Breanna Conley
A Klingenstein Center graduate student explores her experience in "Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard"*

It instantly felt like home when we entered the Cambodian temple, Wat Khmer Samaki Santikaram, in North Chelmsford, Mass. For many, a home is a comfortable place where you feel happy and at ease being precisely who you are. When we arrived, everyone in the community greeted us with smiles and open arms (literally). The space felt inviting as well. The colorful, plush rugs led our eyes to the stage where many golden Buddha depictions were displayed with bright lights emanating from behind. The Master of Ceremonies (MC) and other laypeople directed us to sit front and center, encouraging us to come even closer, as if they really wanted us to be a part of the upcoming experience. More senior members offered to answer many of the questions they knew we might have about their religion, the library they were fundraising for, and the ceremonies we were set to participate in.

I was raised as a Christian and attended a Baptist church where we had all-day services that incorporated songs, prayers, offerings, and sermons. The songs, prayers, and sermons often focused on guiding us to do the right thing and having support through hard times. The offerings usually happened during altar call or communion. (The altar call is when the pastor stands on the altar and asks those who feel inclined to come up and offer themselves to God as they pray over whatever trouble is in their life.) Communion was held only on the fourth Sunday of each month.

There were similarities and differences between the traditions of my church and the temple we visited. At Wat Khmer Samaki Santikaram, I did not have to be a believer of the faith in order to participate in their traditions. This was a pleasant difference between the two institutions. Including everyone, no matter their faith, had a real impact on my sense of belonging. Feeling like I belonged allowed me to be open-minded and ready to authentically receive the experience. The same happens for students who feel genuinely included in the classroom space and curriculum design. As educators, this is the community and sense of belonging that we need to create for all students and community members. If we cultivate an environment that welcomes students and all their identities, then we allow them to show up fully. Students who do not feel a great sense of belonging may ask themselves:

  • “Do I belong in this learning community?”
  • “Does this work have value for me?”
  • “Are students like me valued here?”
  • “Do students like me succeed here?”

These basic needs must be met while in the school’s care. In an interview, Cia Verschelden, the author of Bandwidth Recovery, says, “Students who feel like they belong, and that are safe and respected, don’t have to use any of their precious mental bandwidth on those basic needs and so have more of it devote to learning and development” (Ferlazzo, 2019). Being included so positively and entirely at the temple allowed me to free up my mental bandwidth and receive the experience in its fullest capacity. I was able to be emotionally and spiritually present for the ancestral rice ceremony, candle lighting ceremony, and ceremonial chanting.

The most moving experience for me was the ceremonial chanting by Trent Walker, an author, professor, and postdoctoral fellow with a surplus of knowledge about Buddhism. He sang several chants from his book, Until Nirvana’s Time: Buddhist Songs from Cambodia. Even though I did not know what he was saying, I allowed myself to be fully immersed. I was moved to tears. Without the unique sense of belonging that I felt while in the temple, I would not have been able to receive the moment as intentionally as I did. Had I been worried about if I was sitting correctly, what others thought of me, and if I belonged, I would not have been able to focus on that moment in a deep and meaningful way.

Experiencing the strong sense of community in these Buddhist temples has left a lasting impression on me, and I know that all schools and communities would benefit from creating and fostering safe and stereotype-threat-free environments.


Ferlazzo, L. (2019). Author Interview: 'Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources’ Lost to Poverty and Racism. Education Week Blog.


Breanna Conley is from Montclair, New Jersey. She is currently completing a degree in private school leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. This conference has helped her see the power of belonging and how it shapes communities with members from different backgrounds. After the conference, she plans to continue intentionally cultivating caring and learning communities.

*In early January 2023, four graduate students from the Klingenstein Center of Teachers College, Columbia University, arrived at the Tang Institute for an immersive learning experience. Throughout the week, Tang Institute Director Andy Housiaux and institute collaborator Chenxing Han led the students through an abbreviated version of "Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard," a project birthed during the 2022 Workshop.

Categories: Partnerships, Featured

Other Posts