Date of Award

August 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Catherine M. Engstrom


college access, college experience, college support programs, First-generation college students, higher education, private schools

Subject Categories



This dissertation is a qualitative study that explores how first-generation college students experienced their educational journey in a private four-year institution of higher education. Using data from in depth interviews with 19 first generation college students from three private four year institutions, this study looked at how participants made sense of race, class, gender, and Socioeconomic Status (SES) as it intersects with their first-generation status as part of their lived experience within a private educational setting. It also examined how first-generation students traversed the borders and margins of different communities as they pursue higher education and the kinds of cultural capital first-generation students drew upon to help them as they navigated the academic setting.

I utilized intersectionality, cultural capital, and the Community Cultural Wealth Model as frameworks to analyze the educational experiences of first-generation college students (Bourdieu, 1977; Crenshaw, 1991; Yosso, 2005). This study reveals the challenges participants faced in their journey to college and upon their arrival. My work documents the ways that students utilized family and community resources to navigate structural inequalities as they pursued higher education, and how they confronted and managed issues of class and race upon their arrival, and the ways that informants took on the emotional work of being first generation college students.

This dissertation expands on the Community Cultural Wealth model to include first-generation college students, as well as the notion of microaggressions, to better reflect complex ways that race and class intersect for many first-generation college students. This study adds to the growing body of scholarly work on first-generation students and furthers the dialogue in higher education related to first-generation college students and how to promote their college success, particularly in private four-year institutions. By identifying what factors contributed to the success of the students in this study, this dissertation provides practical implications that may improve the educational experiences of first generation college students and in turn, promote educational equity.


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