Abstract: Participatory Action Research As a Catalyst for Peer Support Among Current and Former Foster Youth in Higher Education (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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76P Participatory Action Research As a Catalyst for Peer Support Among Current and Former Foster Youth in Higher Education

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Sarah Mountz, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY

Background and Purpose: Nationally, 3% of youth with a foster care background graduate from a four-year college, despite 70% expressing a desire to do so. Barriers to accessing college include multiple school changes that jeopardize the accrual of credits; stigma of foster care involvement; mental health struggles related to complex trauma; lack of adult champions; and a lack of support in applying to college. For foster youth who do attend college, there are additional barriers to retention and completion, including financial obstacles, unstable housing, food insecurity, and lack of familial support.

This paper presents methodology and findings from a Participatory Action Research (PAR) study with a cohort of students at a large public research university. Integrating youth voice and perspective to our existing body of knowledge about the educational experiences of current and former foster youth in higher education adds an important perspective regarding the role of peer connection and agency in promoting positive educational outcomes.

Methods: Six students with foster care backgrounds (ages 18-21) participated in a participatory action research (PAR) group hosted within the university’s Educational Opportunities Program (EOP). Co-researchers were recruited through outreach via the university’s EOP counselors and director. Over the course of two semesters, students received an overview of research methods, evaluated existing research regarding the educational experiences of foster youth, then designed an interview guide for a focus group that they co-facilitated among themselves. Focus group questions covered areas related to family and foster care history, educational experiences, mental health, and factors contributing to resilience. Co-researchers identified predominantly as cisgender female (5/6) and all identified as youth of color (3 participants identified as African-American, 1 identified as Asian-American, 1 identified as Latinx, and 1 identified as multiracial and of unknown racial ancestry). Focus group data was transcribed and then analyzed in two ways, first through thematic content analysis using ATLAS TI qualitative software, and simultaneously through participatory narrative analysis using an adapted version of Carol Gilligan’s Listening Guide.

Findings: Data analysis confirmed previous findings that multiple movements while in foster care were a barrier to high school completion, as was the stigma of being in foster care, and the toll of complex trauma upon mental health. Mental health struggles and stigma persisted as barriers within college, where students also experienced food and housing insecurity, barriers to medical care and coverage, lack of familial and agency support, and social isolation.

K-12 completion, college access and retention were all facilitated by having mentors or adult champions, and a desire to “beat the odds.” Co-researchers noted that peer support created through connections made via the research group became an additional resiliency factor and prompted advocacy on behalf of other foster youth.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings highlight the importance of peer support and the possibility of participatory research approaches in catalyzing peer connectivity and agency among current and former foster youth in higher education. Several recommendations are made for child welfare workers and universities in creating foster youth affirming policies, practices, and programming.