Abstract: Supporting Former Foster Youth in College: Lessons from Students and Stakeholders (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Supporting Former Foster Youth in College: Lessons from Students and Stakeholders

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 8, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Leah Cheatham, JD, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Alabama, AL
Jessica Bertram, MSW, Student, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Yan Luo, MSW, PhD student, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Krystal Dozier, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Alabama, AL
Sebrena Jackson, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Alabama
Background/Purpose: Former foster youth (FFY) are often challenged by transitions toward independence, including college participation. Only 10% of FFY enroll in post-secondary education as compared to 40% of youth in the general population, and even fewer FFY graduate college. These disparities in achievement are no surprise: few people in FFY’s lives expect that they will attend college, and FFY who do attend have little natural support when faced with the trials of newfound independence. Acknowledging these challenges, universities have developed campus-based support programs to support FFY in their pursuit of higher education. While many of these campus-based programs exist, approximately 4,500 colleges have no specific supports for these youth. Continued research into existing programs is essential to identify effective program components in preparation for program replication.        

As part of ongoing participatory evaluation efforts, this study seeks to amplify the experiences of students and stakeholders currently engaged with a campus-based support program at a large, southeastern university. Understanding perceptions of the program participants will inform future evaluation and refinement of this and other programs serving FFY in higher education settings.

Methods: Researchers first engaged in three semi-structured focus groups with program stakeholders (i.e., community mentors, advisory board members, campus partners, n=10) where questions were asked to guide subsequent individual interviews with program-involved students (n=16). Student interviews focused on perceptions of the campus-based support program, including program strengths, weaknesses, and plans for program evaluation and growth. Focus group and interview participants were recruited in-person and via email, with the assistance of the REACH program director, while emphasizing the voluntary nature of participation. Students interviewed were predominantly female (75%) and African-American (69%). Focus groups and interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed independently by multiple researchers (5 in total) through NVivo (v. 12) using an iterative, inductive approach.

Findings: Data analysis revealed that stakeholders were concerned with specific needs and challenges of program-involved students, including experiences of stigma on campus, needs for social support through peers and adults, as well as perceived benefits from stable and discrete spaces for on-campus congregation. Students echoed stakeholder priorities, discussing the importance of both the program coordinator and program-involved peers as providing a critical network of socio-emotional support; a network most often accessed through program-sponsored study groups and visits to the program-pantry. Students and stakeholders expressed unease related to the relocation of the program-pantry to a larger, busier campus building far-removed from the program coordinator’s office. Issues of visibility, stigma, and shame were noted given the increasingly public nature of benefit access on campus, and prompted larger questions regarding administrators’ understanding of FFY’s needs and challenges.

Conclusions/Implications: Students’ self-identified needs/desires coincided neatly with stakeholders’ vision for the program, indicating a clear direction for developing programming to best meet students’ needs. Recognizing the importance of the pantry and program coordinator as physical and socio-emotional safety nets for students, concerns expressed regarding the ability of students to access these resources free from stigma are instructive for refining delivery of this and other campus-based support programs for FFY in higher education.