Abstract: From Foster Care to College: Experiences of Immigrant-Origin Latinx Young Adults (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

From Foster Care to College: Experiences of Immigrant-Origin Latinx Young Adults

Friday, January 14, 2022
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer M. Geiger, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Daysi X. Diaz-Strong, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Carolina Cormack Orellana, MSW, Social Worker, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose:

Approximately 3-5% of youth with foster care histories obtain a bachelor’s degree (Courtney et al., 2011), compared with a third of the general population (NCES, 2019). Latinx youth from immigrant families often face barriers to achieving educational success due racism, poverty, and attendance at under-resourced schools, which is complicated further by child welfare system involvement. Little is known about the college experiences of youth with foster care histories by race/ethnicity or immigrant background or what risk and protective factors may influence college success (Dettlaff et al., 2018). Taking an intersectional approach, this study examines how immigrant-origin Latinx youth experience the transition to college and how multiple marginalized identities—foster care-involved, immigrant-origin, and Latinx—interact to shape their experiences.


This qualitative study involved in-depth virtual interviews with Latinx young adults who were foreign-born or had an immigrant parent, had a history of foster care involvement, and experience with postsecondary education settings. Twelve participants were recruited through flyers shared with U.S. organizations and campus-based programs serving youth with foster care experiences and immigrant-origin Latinx youth and families. Thematic analysis using a LatCrit theoretical framework was used to identify and describe themes in the data related to participants’ postsecondary experiences. Researchers generated initial codes, identified and defined key themes from the data, and extracted exemplary quotes.


The majority (11) of the sample were female and were between the ages of 18 to 30 years old. All identified as Latinx, but 2 identified racially as White, 1 Afro-Latinx, 1 biracial, and 1 Pacific Islander. Four overarching themes emerged: (1) duality of success, (2) sense of belonging, (3) fragility of relationships, and (4) stressors, motivation, and support. In the duality of success theme, participants described their success positively, but it was underscored by feeling pressured, othered, and not “being enough.” Many described their success as a point of pride and of exclusion. Many felt they “didn’t fit in” based on multiple identities including ethnoracial background, gender, language proficiency, learning disabilities, and parenting status. The third theme highlights how relationships were often unstable but could also be supportive and helpful. Finally, the fourth theme captures the academic, social, and financial stressors encountered in college along with sources of motivation and support. Participants were motivated by their goals and desired to serve as role models to their siblings. They were resourceful but also identified campus staff and programs as crucial to locating resources needed to succeed. Campus programs were also instrumental to creating spaces to discover more about their multiple identity domains and experience safety and belonging.

Conclusions and Implications:

Findings demonstrate how crucial supports are for immigrant-origin Latinx young adults with foster care histories to navigate barriers to postsecondary education. Programs and policies need to prioritize fostering a sense of belonging for youth in postsecondary education settings that incorporate their multidimensional identities. Additionally, resources must be offered early on and continue throughout their postsecondary education to ensure stability in relationships and in areas of housing, financial support, and academics.