Abstract: 'I Didn't Just Have to be the Product of My Environment': An Exploration of Subjective Perceptions of Success Among Former Participants in a Youth Leadership Program (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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681P 'I Didn't Just Have to be the Product of My Environment': An Exploration of Subjective Perceptions of Success Among Former Participants in a Youth Leadership Program

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Florian Sichling, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Missouri - St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Corinne Maietti, MSW candidate, MSW Student, University of Missouri - St. Louis
Nicki Thomson, PhD, Senior Director of Research and Learning, Wyman Center

The literature on the transition to adulthood largely agrees that for young people today this process has become longer and more varied as a result of recent societal transformations. This theoretical consensus however, stands in sharp contrast to traditional notions of ‘success’ that continue to dominate research on youth outcomes and more importantly programming for disadvantaged youth. These conceptions of success are implicitly based on developmental concepts that view this transition as unfolding in a linear fashion along a set of predetermined status markers such as entry into the labor market or family formation. This discrepancy gives rise to a so-called institutional mismatch between the lived experience of young people today and the very institutions intended to govern their transition to adulthood. This poster presents findings from an exploratory analysis of subjective definitions of success among a group of young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds who graduated from an intensive youth leadership program.


The data for the analysis draws on in-depth, semi-structured, qualitative interviews with 31 alumni of an intensive youth leadership program. The program is based in a midwestern city and provides disadvantaged urban youth with up to 8 years of intensive leadership training as well as extensive academic and social-emotional supports. Respondents were between 25-30 years old and had graduated from the program between 8 and 12 years ago. Interviews were conducted during spring semester 2021 via zoom, lasted between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours – yielding almost 500 pages of interview transcripts – and coded using Qualcoder computer software. Interview questions explored program experiences, challenges and crises, transitions into post-secondary education and the labor market and general perceptions of success.


The analysis revealed that respondents used a combination of traditional status markers and more subjective measures to define success in their lives. While markers such as college or a good career were frequently mentioned, their significance was primarily assessed as an index for a general sense of stability. Self-efficacy emerged as a prominent indicator for success, which reflected a stable sense of self and the recognition of individual strengths to persevere as well as the ability to adapt one’s goals in the face of adversity. Finally, the idea of benevolence emerged as a category of success that included the ability to maintain meaningful relationships with others, being leaders in their workplaces and able to give back to their community.


The findings indicate that the study respondents used traditional status markers alongside more subjective indicators to evaluate success in their lives. While these results raise important questions for future research to explore subjective perceptions of success among other groups of young people, they also offer important insights for youth programming intended to support groups of young people who have historically been structurally excluded from achieving more traditional status markers.