Sarah E. Whitley, Ph.D.

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

Bio: Sarah Whitley

Sarah E. Whitley serves 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. Prior to joining NASPA, Sarah earned a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development where her scholarly interests included issues of inequality, academic motivation and decision-making, teaching and learning, the success of first-generation and low-income students, and the university presidency and board governance. Her dissertation examined the academic decision-making of low-income and first-generation college students with interest in humanities disciplines in a post-Recession context. From 2007 – 2013, Sarah served as director of First-Year Experience and Family Programs at Longwood University where she was responsible for a host of transition, first-year experience, student success, and community engagement initiatives. Sarah is the author of First-generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-year Institutions as well as other scholarship on first-generation and related topics.

A first-generation college graduate, Sarah also holds an M.Ed. in college student personnel administration from James Madison University, a B.S. in political science from Longwood College, and is a 2010 graduate of the HERS Bryn Mawr Summer Institute.

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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