Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Aaron Hughey (chair), Nicholas Brake, Dana Howell

Degree Program

Department of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research

Degree Type

Doctor of Education


This study looked at first-generation college graduates and their paths to successful leadership roles. First-generation college students are defined by the National Association of Personnel Administrators (NASPA) as students from families in which their biological parents did not complete a four-year college degree (NASPA, 2017). An investigation was conducted on demographics, access to education, opportunity, and other factors that lend themselves to successful first-generation leaders who changed the narrative for themselves and their communities. This study looked at the previously conducted literature to provide background support for the need of the research, along with further recommendations and interviews which added resources to the ongoing research. Literature has suggested first-generation college students need additional support, guidance, and mentoring to succeed; and first-generation college students struggle to find a place to grow and support within higher education institutions.

Throughout this study, the researcher analyzed data to determine the way in which access, affordability, leadership opportunity, and mentorship have provided successful paths for leaders to change their stories and access essential leadership roles within higher education institutions. The study explored conversations through qualitative analysis and phenomenological study and sought to explore complex and challenging conversations alongside real experiences. The interview process allowed the interviewees to reflect upon their experiences while in their studies (both undergraduate and graduate) as first-generation college students. The conversations were conducted in person throughout the 30- to 60-minute interviews (if location permitted) or via zoom; some opted for email interviews to remain mindful of their time as leaders. The participants’ indicators were removed for anonymity to allow them to speak openly and candidly about their experiences concerning characteristics, traits, and identity as first-generation college students, graduates, and leaders.

The findings of this study resulted in concluding that the participants were part of a phenomenon that showed the characteristics, traits, and identity that most of them felt included resiliency, hard-working, and determined. It proved that first-generation students embody a variety of soft skills that set them apart, but also set them up for success as leaders. The study resulted in understanding how to better serve first-generation students throughout their collegiate experience to embrace and advocate for them as leaders.


Education | Educational Leadership | Higher Education | Leadership Studies | Scholarship of Teaching and Learning | Social and Behavioral Sciences