Fast 15 with Dr. Mari Ann Callais: Belonging


Casey J. Cornelius (00:03):

Hey everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of The ForCollegeForLife Podcast. My name is Casey Cornelius. I’m the host of the podcast and I’m also the founder and president of ForCollegeForLife. I get the distinct pleasure of getting to interview the folks who make us who we are, the speakers, the consultants, the authors, the facilitators, the thought leaders, the experts, all the people who make us America’s leading college speaking agency. And today I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing none other than Dr. Mari Anne Callais. Now, Mari Ann, I’m going to pull back the curtain right before we press record. You said something that people have been telling me my whole life, and that is I have a voice for radio, and I said the thing, and I just need to say one time, everyone always makes that comment. I also have a face for radio. So thank you for that distinct compliment. I appreciate it. That’s

Dr. Mari Ann Callais (00:54):

Not true. That is not,

Casey J. Cornelius (00:57):

It’s only true if I say it and I said it. So Mari Ann, I know we have a limited amount of time today, and this is a topic that we could talk about for hours and hours and hours, but there’s been a lot of conversations recently around the concept of belonging, and I want to lean into your expertise, your lived experiences, especially working with college student organizations, and ask you how important belonging really is for today’s college student.

Dr. Mari Ann Callais (01:31):

Well, thanks for having me today, Casey. I really appreciate we have been talking about it. And I think post pandemic, we were really trying to figure out, I don’t really know if before that if we focused, we thought people would join our organizations and get involved on college campuses and they would figure out what belonging looked like. I think we’re having to look behind those sections of college campuses and say, okay, so what does it mean to belong? And what I’m seeing with students is they don’t join the same way maybe that past generations have. They’ll join, they’ll try it out, and then if it doesn’t work, there’s a number of other options for them. So when we’re looking at organizations or even college institutions who are trying to keep their students, I think one of the challenges is where is retention? It’s one thing to recruit folks to come to a campus, to join organizations to get involved, but what keeps ’em there?


And these are the things that the students are saying to me, if they’re going to be involved in something, it has to have value. And if you tell me this is what I’m going to receive from this experience, then that’s what I expect. So it’s that transparency, right? I want to know what is the of my time and maybe my investment and what does that look like? Then investment is if you’re asking me to put financial responsibility or a financial part of this into it, I really need to know what the return on the investment is. So I think our students are becoming a little more savvy and they want to know it, and I don’t really blame them for that. And then the third is, am I cared about does this institution, do these members of this organization, do they care about me? And if not, then why am I here?


So I think we’ve known that students specifically were questioning the why. They want to know the why, and I went to a Jesuit institution, so why is built into the fabric of what I’m about? But those three things, if they’re not present, they’re not staying, and we’re seeing a major shift in between, especially traditional age students at the end of their sophomore year into their junior year growth happens greatly developmentally in between that time. So we’re seeing that somewhere on day 500, for example, if they’re joining an organization, they’re deciding, am I going to stay in this organization or am I going to leave? And what does that look like? And am I okay with walking away because I don’t feel like I’m cared for and cared about here?

Casey J. Cornelius (04:38):

So many great parts of your answer there. By the way, I’m thinking about the Jesuit teaching of mods, right? More, and maybe that’s a topic for another day, just simply because I’m fascinated at the simplicity of something that is so transformational in just that word. But we could spend again hours on that. I am thinking Marianne about a great mentor of mine who said to me years ago and thinking about student retention overall, that it is twice as expensive to recruit a new student as it is to retain an existing student. Absolutely. And that’s from a dollars lens. But I almost wonder whether or not the same could be applied in terms of our focus and our intentionality and our efforts at truly retaining the members of our organizations that we have versus the recruitment of new members. How does that play into this discussion of belonging too?

Dr. Mari Ann Callais (05:41):

Well, and I think somewhere somebody came along and said, and we know that those statistics are true, that there’s a birth third and that there are less students maybe going to college today. Here’s my thoughts. You’re right. If we were doing a good job retaining our members, I don’t really know that we would be concerned, but the concern would be different. I think right now you are absolutely correct. There’s a president of a university. His name is Dr. Joe Paul. Dr. Joe Paul and I have been friends for a long, long time. He’s the university president for the University of Southern Mississippi, and he’s always been student focused, but as a university president, I follow him daily. He visits with incoming students, he visits with current students, he’s in the community. He’s creating those connections. I had a former student of mine took her son to that campus, and I reached out to him and I said, I know you’re really busy.


They were in the middle of super regionals. And I said, but I wanted you to know that this family is coming the next day. He made time for that young man and his family. Well, guess who plans on going to that institution because he made him feel special and he made him feel like he was chosen, right? Whether or not he was or not isn’t the point. He made him feel like, if you come here, I promise you I’m going to be a part of that experience of making sure that you belong and feel like you belong here. So I think retention right now is really a relationship scenario. Are we creating relationships or do we just look at those recruitment numbers? It’s like with sorority recruitment. I tell sorority women all the time, you can pat yourself on the back for the number of women that join on bid day, that’s great, but where I really want you to focus is how many of those women graduate active members of your organization?


That’s when I know how well you did, for example, this fall of 2023. So it’s about the experience. And the other thing that I’m seeing is we are not creating environments that are developmentally, how do I say this, meeting the needs of those students. So if you program the same for an incoming freshman that you do for a rising senior, that senior is not going to be interested. So then they start losing interest. They don’t feel like you care about their experience, and they start making decisions of whether or not they’re going to stay or they’re going to go, I call it the drop culture. It’s easy to walk away because I don’t see the value and I don’t feel that connection in relationship and in friendship that I was promised when I was going through the recruitment process. Specifically on sorority side, I

Casey J. Cornelius (08:53):

Think I’m hearing you say two things and tell me if I’m hitting them correctly. So it’s not just about relevancy for new students or first year students, but our organizations, all organizations have to continue to be relevant throughout the experience if we want to create true belonging. Is that a fair statement?

Dr. Mari Ann Callais (09:16):

That is a very fair statement, and I think we used to think if we gave them that foundation, they’d be able to navigate it and they can. They’re the most educated, brightest generation we’ve ever had coming to college campuses. However, developmentally they are still looking for that place to belong. You and I mean, we’re at different ages and stages in life, and we still want to, I’m only going to be involved in something that I feel like there’s value, whether I have something to offer or am I receiving something in that space, right? So I think we forget that you can’t just set the stage and then walk away. We have to be in this experience with one another if we’re really going to talk about life lifetime belonging or lifetime, I don’t even know what commitment looks like anymore, but I spent a lot of time with folks this summer and at all different levels.


I feel like if we don’t do a good job with this, we’re going to really see some challenges. The other thing, Casey, that I find is that students are coming in today to college campuses, many of them in their sophomore year academically, but if they’re 18 years old or 19 years old, they’re still developmentally 18 or 19 years old, even as older, even if academically, they’re further along. So we have to look at what are their needs and are we willing to meet them where they are, or do we just keep expecting to create the environment we believe is where they’re going to feel like they belong. The other thing I’m learning a lot about students right now is that they want conversations. They want to be at the table, and they want to be having those conversations, and that helps them to create a sense of belonging. I have a voice here, and I think that leads into all equity, inclusion, access, and belonging work that’s happening

Casey J. Cornelius (11:32):

So much there. Maryanne the other. No, no, no, no, no. And again, I feel like we could go on for a long time, folks, if you’re not yet familiar with Maryanne’s work, please make sure you visit for college for That’s Maryanne with an I, not a Y, Maryanne with an I. The other thing that I think as a thread of everything that you’re saying, Marianne, and this applies not only to undergraduate students, but all of us, is that we all have a yearning and a desire to feel special and important and valued. And if we don’t feel those things, we’re probably never going to develop a sense of belonging.

Dr. Mari Ann Callais (12:09):

Absolutely. I’ve been writing this chapter for this possible publication, and I looked back at my own development when I went away to college, and I am from a fishing village, a first generation college student, and I was thinking about where were those moments that if I didn’t find belonging, I don’t think I would’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree, which of course then wouldn’t have led to the life I have today. And I just went to a reunion of a musical group that I joined, and we did 180, we performed 180 shows at the World’s Fair. It is the most work I’ve ever had to put into an experience in my whole life, and I just saw some of those folks for the first time in almost 30 years, and those memories of the grit that had to go into that experience, but I knew that I belong there. We created something together. I think today we have got to stop looking at our experiences as I’m the leader and you’re the follower. It’s not an us and them, it’s we.


It’s that environment that we’re creating that somebody says, maybe I’m not an officer and maybe I’m not the president, but I have a lot to offer, and as a result, that keeps me there. So when you said it makes we all want to feel special, we do. We want to walk into spaces where somebody knows our name. I play at this little wine bar in our town called The Red, white and Brew, and the other day they posted that if you can’t come here and be kind and accept people, then maybe this isn’t the place for you. And when you walk into that space, people know your name or they want to know your name. So there’s this energy that’s created, and it’s because the owners, and I know this is going to sound crazy on a podcast about belonging, but the owners create a vibe that says, we want you here not because of whatever, because of who you are, and you’re a part of this experience. And I’m like, if you can get that right at a wine bar, why can’t we get that right on college canvases?

Casey J. Cornelius (14:40):

Why? I’ll tell you, the other place I’d like to get it right is right here on this podcast. So listen folks, again, if you have not yet, the other thing I’m going to ask you, and it’s a simple ask, but it’s super duper important. If you have not yet, please make sure that you do the things you’re supposed to do with podcasts, like and share and subscribe and review and make sure that this episode gets in the face the playlist of the person who needs it the most because you’re a part of this experience as well, and we want to continue to deliver content that you find valuable, important, and connects with important topics that you’re thinking about as well. Mari Ann, it was such a pleasure to talk with you today. We could go on for hours and hours, but I got to thank you for your time. Such a pleasure. As always, folks, until the next time, we appreciate you. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you so much for engaging, and until then be well. We’ll talk to you soon.

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