The College of William and Mary welcomes inaugural Director of First-Generation, Low-Income Student Engagement, Joselia Souza


As the College of William and Mary’s inaugural Director of First-Generation, Low-Income Student Engagement, Joselia Souza holds both personal and professional experience providing resources to students who did not have the means to access these opportunities before. Souza began in the newly-created position in February with the goal of expanding access to resources, programs and mentors for the College’s first-generation student population. 

“I’m in the very early stages of feeling the temperature of the university, seeing what the needs are, getting to know the students, figuring out William and Mary myself, meeting with different departments, seeing what resources are offered to first-gen students and figuring out how I can serve as the umbrella of support to be able to expand access to these resources,” Souza said. 

As a first-generation student herself, Souza aims to support other first-generation students here at the College. In addition to her new position, Souza is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Education and Higher Education Leadership at the University of Miami. 

Souza graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in sociology. While she originally entered the institution as an intended engineering major, her best friend’s passion for sociology eventually led her to switch majors.

“I got into sociology because my best friend was studying sociology, and she had a really close relationship with the director of sociology at Notre Dame,” Souza said. “I ended up spending Thanksgiving at her home one time because I couldn’t go home. So then we really got to talk, one on one, me and the faculty member about what sociology is and my best friend about why she loved it. So that’s kind of how I got involved with sociology.”

Souza quickly became passionate about the field after taking several fascinating courses. 

“There were amazing classes that I took,” Souza said. “I took Criminology, Social Problems, Marriage and Family, I took a bunch of really cool classes. And I kind of fell in love to a point where I ended up doing a thesis even though it wasn’t required.”

Souza’s decision to write an optional thesis was heavily inspired by a professor she met in her junior year. This professor encouraged her to embark on a research project under her mentorship, and even though Souza didn’t fully understand what that sort of research entailed at the time, she took a leap of faith and accepted the opportunity. 

“Picture a student whose parents didn’t go to college, they don’t know what research is.” Souza said. “She gave me some time, she gave me half a semester to think about it, and in the end, I was like ‘alright, I’ll do it.’ So then I did it.”

After completing her thesis which covered topics in both sociology and education, that same professor encouraged Souza to pursue a master’s degree in higher education. Souza shared how important it was to have a mentor who believed in her along the way — one who ultimately gave her the confidence to take that next step on her academic journey. 

“The same wonderful lady was like, you should go get your master’s in higher education,” Souza said. And I’m like, ‘a master’s?’ And she’s like, ‘You can do it, I believe in you.’ And that’s kind of all it took throughout my undergraduate career to have that one person to be like, ‘you got this, you got it in the bag. You made it this far. You made it to Notre Dame. That’s not a small accomplishment. You can do it.’”

While completing her master’s degree at Southern Methodist University, Souza founded the university’s First Generation Initiative. The program helps first-generation undergraduate students adjust to college life by providing various resources and individualized support.

“I started this brand new department or segment within the department of Student Persistence and Achievement,” Souza said. “As a grad student, I started the first annual, national first-gen day, and now it’s huge. It started with me having donuts and people tabling different resources, and balloon arches. And now they have a DJ, food trucks, so now it’s a huge celebration. And that makes me really excited.”

Following her master’s degree, Souza took a job at a high school in Dallas, Texas, where she worked closely with first-generation students. This opportunity enabled her to gain insight into what students really need in their transition to higher education, by virtue of what they lack. 

“Most of the students were first-gen, maybe like 95%, so they were basically all first-gen,” Souza said. “It was so interesting seeing where these students are coming from. You see them when they get to college, but what do their high schools actually look like? I really got to see that, and it showed me that there’s so much of a gap in the students’ needs to be successful, especially as they transition into college.”

Souza then worked at the University of Miami and Florida International University, where living in the undergraduate dorms brought her in close contact with first-generation students. These experiences further developed her knowledge on what resources and support FGLI students need most in a college setting, ultimately leading her to the College. 

In her free time, Souza enjoys hiking and going to the beach. She looks forward to meeting new students, encourages visits to her office in the VPSA suite on the third floor of Sadler Center, and is excited to host her first major event this upcoming November for National First-Generation College Celebration Day. 


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