Date of Award

Spring 5-14-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

First Advisor

Marcia Martin, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Joretha Bourjolly, Ph.D.


Increasing consensus about the value of a college degree in providing socioeconomic mobility and better health outcomes for communities experiencing poverty has contributed to rising college matriculation rates for first-gen students. One in three students in college are first-gen, yet college completion rates for first-gen students are significantly lower than the national average in the United States (10% versus 60%) (Forrest Cataldi et al., 2018). While there are various factors that contribute to the disparity in graduation outcomes, this dissertation focuses on the role a sense of belonging plays. Research on a sense of belonging has shown that higher rates of belonging are correlated with high academic achievement for all students, and low rates of belonging are particularly detrimental for first-gen students’ academic achievement, which is correlated with graduation outcomes (Gopalan & Brady, 2019). The complex psychological dynamics students experience as they navigate and develop their individual sense of belonging on their campuses warrants further study to better understand the phenomenon (Strayhorn, 2012).

The first paper of this two-paper dissertation provides a comprehensive literature review on college outcomes and theories on college student belonging. The second paper presents a qualitative exploratory case study of one first-gen student’s quest to belong on their campus. The case study utilizes a Relational Cultural Theory lens from which to understand and explore the nuanced experiences of belonging that develop as this student navigates their college experience. An analysis of the interview data illustrates several significant themes: an inherent yearning for connection and relationship with others; the critical nature of growth-fostering moments and people; and the active disconnecting from the campus and from others as a strategy for survival, particularly if the yearning for connection and belonging is unmet. These findings have several implications for practice for those working with first-gen students including those in higher education. First, the findings suggest that the sense of disconnection that first-gen students experience can be invisible and hard to gauge from quantitative data alone (class attendance, test scores). Second, belonging often is experienced in phases and cycles and disrupting the cycle of disconnection can be possible through growth-fostering moments. Third, relationships matter, including relationships with peers, faculty, advisors and other staff at colleges that all have the potential to leave an imprint on how a first-gen student negotiates the various emotions of belonging at any given moment.

Included in

Social Work Commons