Yakaboski, Tamara

Committee Member

Larkins, Randy

Committee Member

Guzman, Tobias

Committee Member

Muller, Heidi


College of Education and Behavioral Sciences Department of Leadership, Policy and Development: Higher Education and P-12 Education, Higher Education and Student Affairs Leadership


University of Northern Colorado

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Greeley, (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

Date Created



137 pages

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Born digital


To capture the essence of the sense of belonging for first-generation students (FGS) within an academic unit of study in higher education, this qualitative inquiry used portraiture to provide answers to four research questions. Q1 How do FGS make meaning of belongingness in an academic unit? Q2 How do FGS describe the academic unit’s climate which contributes to their sense of belonging? Q3 According to participants, how do social interactions within the academic unit contribute to belongingness? Q4 How do FGS interpret symbols that create a sense of belongingness? Through the theoretical frame of symbolic interactionism, this research offered a portrait of the climate and culture from a single academic unit, which established a community of care where FGS experienced a sense of belonging. The participants in the study included two current first-generation undergraduate students, three first-generation alumni, seven faculty, and two support staff from the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. Further, the researcher used her experience as a first-generation alumna of the department to contribute additional insight, adding a layer of depth to the portrait. Using the methodology of portraiture, interview transcriptions were analyzed using the Listening Guide, revealing three themes: family, trust, and iii value. The research findings were presented as a comprehensive portrait highlighting the department culture that created a climate where first-generation students felt a sense of belonging. The discussion and implications for practice provided suggestions for academic unit leadership and faculty to create a climate of care where FGS felt connected and valued. Further, these findings suggested that department culture and interactions among faculty, staff, and students contributed in profound ways to the climate first-generation students experienced. This research underscored the important role leadership has in creating a culture that fosters a climate of care where students feel a sense of belonging.

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Copyright is held by the author.