Date of Award

12-17-2015

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

First Advisor

Lisa P. Armistead

Second Advisor

Wing Yi Chan

Third Advisor

Julia Perilla

Fourth Advisor

Kelly M. Lewis

Abstract

As the United States focuses on its commitment to opportunity and access to education for all, universities have turned their attention to increasing graduation and retention rates of highly diverse student bodies. One group of students with challenging recruitment, retention, and graduation outcomes is first generation college students; those students whose parents have not completed a college education. Researchers and academic officials are making persistent efforts at understanding what will improve these students’ academic outcomes, with numerous interventions being implemented across the country. A factor consistently associated with better outcomes in adolescence is school connectedness, the degree to which students feel supported and part of their school environment. Research focused on school connectedness at the K-12 level proliferates, however, its role in college students’ lives remains neglected, despite the potential for connectedness to be a vital predictor of school success. School connectedness may be especially important among first generation college students as they are more likely to feel estranged in the unfamiliar university environment. The current study took an ecological and strengths-based approach to understanding school connectedness among first generation college students focusing on three research questions: 1) What do first generation college students believe contribute to school connectedness? 2) What strengths can be further nurtured to enhance success for first generation college students? 3) What changes to the university environment do first generation students believe would enhance their success? Qualitative interviews were conducted with 18 first generation college students representing a diverse range of ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, and major courses of study at a large public university in the southern United States. Findings uncovered high feelings of school connectedness across the sample, which were tied to belonging to campus clubs and organizations, appreciation for a diverse and friendly student body, and a sense of caring on campus. Participant individual and ecological strengths were highlighted, along with obstacles to feeling more connected and accessing resources. Participant responses illuminated the need to address the ways in which university culture necessarily means first generation college students are at a disadvantage. Implications for policy, practice, and future lines of research are discussed.

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