Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Education Policy, Planning, and Administration

Committee Chairperson

Orkideh Mohajeri, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Cheryl Neale-McFall, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lisa Montgomery, Ed.D.


This qualitative study explored lower-income, first-generation college students’ sense of belonging to their university setting. This research defined first-generation as neither parent nor guardian graduating from college (Dominguez-Whitehead et al., 2021). Lower-income students were identified with family incomes less than $52,200 (Walrack & Segal, 2023). Eight students at various stages of their college careers with an array of student involvement and diverse backgrounds participated in individual interview sessions to engage in dialogue about their college experiences, family dynamics, and the impacts of their socioeconomic status when entering the university system.

When looking sense of belonging, this research explored students’ connectedness to their peers, the faculty and staff, and the university. When analyzing student narratives, Dr. Terrel Strayhorn’s (2008, 2011) work with sense of belonging, Dr. Laura Perna’s (2005, 2006) work evaluating lower-income, first-generation college students, and Dr. Ricardo Stanton Salazar’s (1997, 2011) social capital framework was considered. Upon transcription, six themes emerged as constant and relevant. These themes include employment, support networks, caretaker responsibilities, family expectations, financial disparities, and ethnic, racial, and cultural identities.

Students in this study reported a struggle when finding their sense of belonging. Factors students attributed to the lack of connections included employment, living situations, financial burdens, and the inability to engage with others from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This study will dive deeper into these themes and explore details about these findings.