Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Higher Education Administration

Major Professor

Norma T. Mertz

Committee Members

Jennifer Morrow, Ruth Darling, Dorian McCoy


It has been suggested that low-income, students of color, and first-generation students face major impediments to feeling like they belong on campus (Ostrove & Long, 2007). Because first-generation students come to college with a myriad of challenges that directly impact their first-year experience, understanding how best to support this population is a crucial responsibility. Sense of belonging has been shown to be related to academic achievement, retention, and persistence to degree completion for students from historically marginalized groups (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Rhee, 2008; Strayhorn, 2008d; Walton & Cohen, 2011). The purpose of this study was to understand how first-generation students achieve a sense of belonging in the first-year of college and how their sense of belonging contributes to their persistence. The following research questions guided the study: 1) How do first-generation students achieve a sense of belonging; 2) How did their sense of belonging affect their persistence from the first to second year?

Interviews were conducted with 12 first-generation students who completed their first year of college during the 2015-2016 academic year. Data were analyzed using an ongoing process that began with reviewing and coding each interview and consolidating codes recursively within and across interviews to derive the themes that addressed the research questions (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002; Corbin & Strauss, 1990).

Three themes described how students tried to achieve a sense of belonging in the first year of college: (a) by building relationships with other students, faculty and staff, (2) by getting involved in activities on campus, and (3) by becoming engaged in the residence hall experience. Not all participants developed a sense of belonging, nevertheless they all persisted from the first to second year. The majority of participants (7) attributed their persistence to having achieved a sense of belonging. Four of the remaining participants, none of whom reported having achieved a sense of belonging, attributed their persistence to personal reasons and motivations; and one, who achieved a sense of belonging, felt it played no part in her persistence.

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