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Higher education seeks to support foster alumni

Thursday, March 5, 2020

They are alumni of the foster care system, and Oklahoma State University professors and colleagues across the nation want to ensure they also become college alumni.

Sponsored by the Spencer Foundation, researchers and practitioners who focus on foster alumni college students gathered in Washington, D.C., in February for the inaugural National Conference for Engaged Scholarship on Foster Alumni and other hidden college populations. Attendees identified challenges foster alumni face, then designed six research studies that will be conducted ahead of next year’s conference.

“This conference also deliberately seated practitioners on every research team,” said Dr. Kerri Kearney, OSU associate professor of higher education and student affairs and conference founder. “We feel a responsibility to these students, and we want to make changes that are good for students.”

Foster alumni are less likely to graduate from college than those not in the foster system, according to national statistics. While more than 70 percent say they want to go to college, only 3 to 11 percent actually earn a bachelor’s degree.

Often without family to call or a home to return to during school holidays, foster alumni can feel isolated. Tasks like completing financial aid paperwork become challenging, considering contact with family is often not possible. Over time, these ongoing challenges can take an emotional toll on foster alumni, as they may feel the higher education systems they are entering are often unaware and unequipped to address their unique journeys.

“If you have a student in a position of constantly explaining why they’re different and why they don’t fit, eventually that message gets through to the student, and we risk losing the student,” Kearney said.

However, foster alumni are not the only ones feeling like their voices have not been heard.

“Social workers were doing this type of research well before higher education researchers,” Kearney said. “It’s hard to find a social work researcher in this area who has not been frustrated that the concerns have not been addressed in higher education. Thus, a major focus of the conference was to bring together these interdisciplinary researchers.”

Adding to the challenge, Kearney says foster alumni are a hidden population within colleges and universities.

Research on hidden college populations is still unfolding but can also include students who have recovered from addictions, were victims of sex trafficking or formerly incarcerated, and are food insecure.

“They often don’t really want to be identified because they don’t want to be labelled,” Kearney said. “But the fact they don’t identify themselves makes it really hard for higher education to serve them, even when we’re capable of serving them.”

Although seemingly diverse, hidden populations seem to have at least two common threads that lead to unique needs for support from higher education.

“We’re also finding through research that hidden populations seem to share the component of trauma,” Kearney said. “Because they often resist self-identifying, often due to fear of social judgements about the trauma they have endured, we can’t just build a center and expect them to come to us. We have to proactively build trusting relationships with them, and that’s a different way of thinking for higher education.”

Dr. Lisa Will, OSU visiting assistant professor of higher education and student affairs and conference coordinator, believes the research will build on a strong start by Oklahoma universities. Oklahoma was the 10th state in the nation to have a formal collaboration between child welfare agencies and higher education institutions. Less than 20 states have established such a partnership, and the level of support varies from state to state.

However, Kearney says the job is far from done for all stakeholders in Oklahoma higher education.

“As the State of Oklahoma removed these children from their homes, it is sometimes easy to distance ourselves by saying they are ‘in the State’s custody.’” Kearney said. “We forget there is no State of Oklahoma. We are the State of Oklahoma – the people who live and vote here, and we have a responsibility to these young people”

Researchers are set to gather back at OSU for the 2021 National Conference for Engaged Scholarship on Foster Alumni and other hidden populations.

In the meantime, individuals interested in learning more about better supporting college-bound and in-college foster alumni can take advantage of the many resources offered by Oklahoma State. Online training is available for the public and OSU employees, and a 12-hour Graduate Certificate in Hidden Populations will be offered by the higher education and student affairs program, beginning Fall 2021. Additionally, foster alumni can receive support through the RisforThursday Network.

“We want foster alumni students to feel like they also belong on college campuses,” Will said.

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MEDIA CONTACT: Brittany Bowman | 405-744-9347 |

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