Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Educational Leadership

Major Professor

Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Howard Johnston, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Veselina Lambrev, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Stephanie Russell Krebs, Ph.D.


COVID-19, Evaluation, First-Year Students, Retention, Sense of Belonging


Foundational to this evaluation study, the participating institution aspired to improve its retention rate. Students’ perceived sense of belonging has been identified as an important variable related to student retention and persistence (Bean & Eaton, 2000; Strayhorn 2012; Strayhorn 2019; Tinto, 2017). For students to succeed beyond their first year in college, it is fundamentally important that they view themselves as valued members of the university community (Bean & Eaton, 2000; Bollen & Hoyle, 1990; Murphy, 2016).

The purpose of this study was to evaluate how undergraduate students, predicted as less likely to retain into their second year, described their development of a perceived sense of belonging during their first year of college to a mid-sized university in the Southeastern United States. The methodology was framed by an evaluative design utilizing semi-structured qualitative interviews for data collection. Data analysis included coding and thematic analysis to draw conclusions and inform the institution about student belonging and environmental factors at the institution that may assist current retention efforts.

Findings suggest that even amidst a pandemic, students’ perceived sense of belonging was fostered by positive peer relationships and faculty interactions, shared goals as well as challenges, and holding the totality of the student learning experience within a university-wide community of care. This evaluation study addressed a gap in the literature by including the student voice to describe the nuances of developing connection to a new university environment to better inform educators about this very important component of retention, persistence, and student success.