Office of Belonging banquet recognized Michael Easterling’s efforts to help students belong.
Since the opening of the BYU Office of Belonging, faculty and students have become more actively engaged in facilitating belonging on campus. Adjunct Faculty Michael Easterling (Interdisciplinary Humanities) spoke about his work to expand belonging on campus at the November 30, 2022, Office of Belonging Honoree Dinner. The Office of Belonging hosted a social media campaign searching for exceptional students, faculty, and staff who facilitated a sense of belonging on campus. Easterling received the most nominations and was subsequently honored for his efforts.
Individuals on campus submitted nominations to the Office of Belonging, sharing their experiences about the people at BYU who helped foster a sense of belonging for them or someone else on campus. When writing about Easterling, one student wrote, “I felt as if God had welcomed him in my life here at BYU in order to make me feel included. . . . If there’s one person on this campus that makes anyone from a different sex, religion, background, and culture feel included at the school, it is Michael Easterling.”
In an interview with Easterling after the event, he noted that his desire for belonging and inclusion on campus came from personal lived experiences as well as impactful conversations with students and alumni. A few years ago, one student recounted his experience at New Student Orientation to Easterling. Bullied three different times for wearing a yarmulke, the student stopped wearing it on campus and stopped publicly identifying as being Jewish. The conversation Easterling had with the student inspired him to change his approach to belonging in the classroom by facilitating more inclusive conversations.
Easterling often hears similar accounts of minoritized and female students being told that they would only get a job, promotion, or admittance to a certain school because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. Although the students may not try to be overtly racist or malicious, Easterling emphasizes the hurtful nature of telling someone that they get rewarded based solely on their physical characteristics rather than their qualifications.
In his classroom, Easterling fosters a sense of belonging in a number of ways. He focuses on the Aims of a BYU Education in his classroom: spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging, character building, and lifelong learning and service. He believes that tapping into these four aims allows students to become more spiritually edified with the educated capacity and moral paradigm to serve and see others in a way that Christ would—as children of God.
Another way Easterling nurtures belonging is by facilitating classroom discussions and participation. He encourages students to learn how to use their voices to communicate clearly rather than leaving it to someone else to guess what issues might need to be addressed. “We have to be vulnerable to put ourselves out there to ask for help.” At the end of each class, Easterling tells his students to “be the good and see the good” and reminds them that they can reach out to him if they need support.
To help minority students feel included, Easterling advises students and professors to get involved with the Office of Belonging. He encourages majority students to have the courage and charity to stand up. At the same time, he hopes minority students have the courage to be vulnerable, to self-advocate, and to speak up.
Easterling believes that anyone can become a more Christlike disciple and can cultivate belonging and inclusion if they truly listen and facilitate real conversations. “There’s nothing special about me that makes me any better than anybody else. But there’s absolutely something that I can learn from everybody if I will open myself to them.”