Department of Educational Administration


First Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth Niehaus

Date of this Version


Document Type



Zobac, S. R. (April 22, 2021). “I always felt like I belonged:” A case study on a first-generation focused student success program and sense of belonging. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Educational Studies (Educational Leadership and Higher Education), Under the Supervision of Professor Elizabeth Niehaus. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2021

Copyright © 2021 Stephanie R. Zobac


This qualitative case study explored if and how a first-generation focused student success program fostered sense of belonging amongst first-generation college students. Utilizing the theoretical framework of sense of belonging (Strayhorn, 2012), the following research questions guided this study: (1) How do first-generation students experience a first-generation focused student success program? (2) How do first-generation students experience sense of belonging when participating in a first-generation student success program, if at all? (3) How can institutional policies and practices, in the form of a first-generation student success program support the sense of belonging of first-generation students, if at all? Participants included seven college students involved in a first-generation focused student success program at a small, private liberal arts college in the Midwest. Data collection involved institutional, program, and participant level data. Institutional and program data included document review and an interview with the program director. Participant level data included two individual interviews with each of the seven participants as well as observations of the individuals participating in the program.

After analyzing the data collected to better understand the participants' experience in the program as well as sense of belonging, four themes were constructed from the data: (1) Helping students navigate unfamiliar structures of the institution, particularly during the initial transition to college, (2) Helping students connect with other people on campus to promote a sense of community, (3) Providing a sense of mattering for students, and (4) Promoting a positive self-identification as a "first-gen" student. The findings of this study confirm the importance of first-generation focused student success programs in developing sense of belonging among the first-generation participants. This study discussed the implications of the findings and directions for future practice and research.

Advisor: Elizabeth Kathleen Niehaus