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An Exploration of the Lived Experiences of First-Generation College Presidents

Dawn A Eades, Johnson & Wales University


Considerable research has focused on the experiences of first-generation college students (FGS) (Defreitas & Rinn, 2013; Lightweis, 2014; Martin, 2015; Morales, 2014; Swecker, Fifolt, & Searby, 2013), who are defined as students whose parents did not graduate with a bachelor’s degree from college (DeFreitas & Rinn, 2013). With minimal parental support, a lack of adequate academic preparation, and often from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, FGS drop-out rates are high (Mehta, Newbold, & O'Rourke, 2011; Swecker et al., 2013). For those FGS who do succeed and obtain a bachelor’s degree, there is scant research on their transition into the workforce or their career paths (Gibbons & Woodside, 2014). One of the career pathways that has been studied extensively is that of the college president; however, while numerous individuals from diverse backgrounds have attained these positions, there is little known about the FGS who have pursued and succeeded in these leadership roles. This phenomenological study explored the lived experiences of first-generation college presidents using the framework of Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) to uncover the ways in which contextual supports and barriers helped to shape FGS career decisions as they migrated to the college presidency. As a framework, SCCT explains why individuals choose a particular career path (Harlow & Bowman, 2016). This study was guided by the following overarching research question: What is the lived experience of first-generation college presidents? Semi-structured interviews explored the lived experiences of these first-generation presidents (N = 12); supporting data sources comprised document analysis and reflective questionnaires (N = 4). Four themes emerged from this study, resulting from synthesized data analysis: First-generation presidents are not aware that their challenges are any different from non-first generation students, they did not always aspire to be college presidents, they are particularly grateful to their mentors for providing opportunities and support, and they believe in “paying it forward.” Findings may inform higher education leaders of the ways they can support FGS as they transition into the workforce and begin their careers, especially for those individuals with aspirations toward senior leadership roles in higher education.

Subject Area

Higher Education Administration|Educational leadership

Recommended Citation

Eades, Dawn A, "An Exploration of the Lived Experiences of First-Generation College Presidents" (2019). Dissertation & Theses Collection. AAI13865989.