Sarah E. Whitley, Ph.D.

Vice President, Center for First-generation Student Success, NASPA

Bio: Sarah Whitley

Dr. Sarah E. Whitley has served as vice president of the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and The Suder Foundation, since its founding in 2017. Her leadership has positioned the Center as the premier source for data, training, and expertise around first-generation student success and created a network of colleges and universities across the country working to scale and sustain the important work of serving first-generation students.

As the leader of the Center, Dr. Whitley has authored several widely-referenced reports on first-generation students, including two acclaimed landscape studies and fact sheets with national data about first-generation students. She also oversaw the creation of the Journal for First-generation Student Success, the first academic peer-reviewed journal with a specific focus on first-generation student experiences and outcomes.

A frequent speaker and author of numerous scholarly works on topics related to first-generation students, Dr. Whitley’s work focuses on issues of inequality, academic motivation and decision-making, teaching and learning, the experiences and outcomes of first-generation students, and university presidency and board governance.

A proud first-generation college graduate, Dr. Whitley earned a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, an M.Ed. in college student personnel administration from James Madison University, and a B.S. in political science from Longwood College. From 2007 - 2013, she served as director of First-Year Experience and Family Programs at Longwood University.

Dr. Whitley currently resides in Virginia with her partner, Sarah, three children, Bennett, Caroline, and Emerson, and her dog, Charlotte.

Connect with Sarah on Twitter @sarahewhitley

Speaker Travels From


Sarah is available for in-person and virtual engagements! Contact us today.

Speaker Topics

Four-year landscape analysis

First-generation Students in Community Colleges: A National Exploration of Institutional Support Practices

Who are first-generation college students? Defining, tracking, and understanding experiences

Understanding the intersectional first-generation student identity

Institutional strategies for supporting first-generation students at scale

Shifting from deficit to asset-based approaches for first-generation student success

Creating inclusive environments and the impact of National First-Generation College Celebration Day

The role of student affairs practitioners in supporting and advancing first-generation student success

Strategies for faculty and staff to improve classroom experiences for first-generation college students

What does it mean to be “first-generation student-ready”? Examining institutional policies, procedures, and jargon and dismantling barriers to success

Building an engaged community: Securing senior leadership support and establishing infrastructure for making first-generation student success an institutional priority

Networking institutional resources for strengthened support of first-generation college students

Support matters: First-generation students and family systems

Custom presentations also available

Speaker Presentations

Books, News, & Media


Scholarly Papers

  • Roksa, J., Silver, B.R., Deutschlander, D. and Whitley, S.E. (2020). Navigating the First Year of College: Siblings, Parents, and First‐Generation Students’ Experiences. Sociological Forum. doi:10.1111/socf.12617
  • Roksa, J., Deutschlander, D., & Whitley, S.E. (2020). Parental Validation, College Experiences, and Institutional Commitment of First-Generation and Low-Income Students. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 1-15. doi: 10.1080/19496591.2019.1699105
  • Roksa, J., & Whitley, S.E. (2017). Fostering Academic Success of First-Year Students: Exploring the Roles of Motivation, Race, and Faculty. Journal of College Student Development 58(3), 333-348. doi:10.1353/csd.2017.0026.

The Chronicle of Higher Education


Community Impact

Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Inside Higher Ed


U.S. News & World Report

The Verge

Past Speaking Engagements

  • National Conference on Race and Ethnicity
  • Campus Labs Elevate
  • AL1GN Conference
  • Florida Consortium's Focus on First-gen Conference
  • Southwest Symposium on First-generation Student Success
  • Council for Opportunity in Education Annual Conference
  • National Resource Center on the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition
  • NASPA Annual Conference
  • NASPA First-generation Student Success Conference
  • Achieving the Dream Annual Meeting
  • University of California First-generation Symposium
  • National Orientation Directors Association Annual Conference
  • NASPA Regional Conferences
  • ILEA Partnerships for College Completion
  • Rutgers University RU 1st Forum
  • Texas A&M University
  • Ohio State University
  • Columbus State Community College
  • Purdue University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Southern Methodist University

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