Abstract: They Expect Us to Look a Certain Way, but We Dont: Picturing the Experiences of College Students with a History of Foster Care or Homelessness (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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They Expect Us to Look a Certain Way, but We Dont: Picturing the Experiences of College Students with a History of Foster Care or Homelessness

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Ahwatukee A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Esaa Mohammad Samarah, MSW, Doctoral Student, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Lisa Jackson, MSW, LCSW, Senior Program Director, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Lisa Schelbe, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: Young people with a history of foster care and or homelessness experience significant barriers to education and often have poorer educational outcomes (Wolanin, 2005; Courtney et. al, 2010). Universities have established campus support programs (CSP) to address these student needs (Geiger & Beltran, 2017). There is limited knowledge about how students in CSP fare in college (Piel et al., 2020). Students’ perspectives can provide insights on how CSP can better address inequalities and reduce disparities.

This study addresses this gap by examining the experiences of students in a CSP for students with a history of foster care, homelessness, relative care, or ward of the State status.

Method: We used Photovoice methodology to elicit the perspectives of 18 undergraduate students in a CSP. Participants took pictures that addressed two guiding questions: What is it like to be a college student who experienced foster care, homelessness, relative care, or ward of the State status? And what is it like to participate in a CSP? Participants were interviewed using six guiding questions: 1) “What do you see happening here?” 2) “What is actually happening here?” 3) “What does this photo tell us about life in your community?” 4) “Why are things this way?” 5) “How could this photo educate people?” and 6) “What can we do about it?” (SHOWeD). Interviews were transcribed and coded thematically using an inductive, iterative approach.

Findings: Analysis revealed that participants’ experiences in college were often impacted by their past. Students shared how challenges experienced as children and youth sometimes continued in college. Participants disclosed that they often felt like outsiders on campus. For some participants, feeling like an outsider was related to student experiences of diversity while attending a predominantly white institution. Concerns of peers not understanding their foster care or homelessness experiences was accompanied by intense feelings of pressure these students felt as they acted as role models for their family, friends, and community.

Students reflected on issues with housing, food, mental, and physical health as stressors that made it difficult to sustain a college lifestyle like their peers without experience in foster care or homelessness. Resources provided by the CSP including scholarships, housing assistance, and food pantry were identified as important. In addition to these supports, participants identified the sense of community they felt in being part of the CSP as valuable. Students appreciated having a designated shared space on campus where they could connect to other students with similar backgrounds. Consistently, participants stressed that the CSP improved their overall college experience and contributed to their successes.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings highlight the importance of holistic services and a sense of community associated with CSPs. By providing holistic support to students as they transition to college, CSP supporting this population can create spaces in which students who disproportionately have been excluded from higher education can feel welcome and able to overcome adversity. Doing so has the potential to address inequities faced by youth in this population as they transition to post-secondary education.