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Q&A with Royel M. Johnson – EdSource

Foster youth rarely figure prominently in efforts to promote broader access to college, but many aspire to attend and have the skills to thrive there, argues Royel M. Johnson, a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, in his upcoming book.

The book, “From Foster Care to College: Meeting Educational Challenges and Creating Possibilities,” features the stories of 49 current and former foster youth from across the country who have enrolled in college, often relying on skills they gained while navigating the foster care system.

The idea for the book came about when Johnson was a professor at Pennsylvania State University, where his research focused heavily on youth affected by the foster care and criminal justice systems.

Royel M. Johnson is a full professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, with a courtesy appointment at the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
Photo credit: Royel M. Johnson

“I’ve been building an area of ​​work, a research program around system-impacted populations that are not always considered college material, and are not always focused on national efforts to promote college access and postsecondary success,” she said in a recent interview.

Johnson grew up in the Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, a predominantly black community with a decades-long history of disinvestment that has resulted in high unemployment and lower life expectancy rates.

“In that way, you get exposed pretty early to systemic inequalities, whether it’s in policing, child welfare policies, or education,” she said. “My own life experience became the lens through which I developed my curiosity for research and trying to better understand the path and structural disadvantages and opportunities that some people have and others don’t.”

While studying political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Johnson met and studied alongside graduate students enrolled in the university’s educational policy doctoral program.

They inspired him to stay in college to pursue a career in education policy, earning a master’s degree in that field and eventually a doctorate in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State University.

Johnson, whose book is due out in October, recently took the time to talk about how the book project came together and what she learned from the foster youth she interviewed. The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

Much of the work on foster youth revolves around the question, “What explains failure?” We need to understand why some students don’t succeed. But there’s also a lot we can learn from young people who do succeed, and that becomes the model we start from. I wanted to do asset-based, resilience-based work, rather than deficit-oriented work.

Your book tells the stories of 49 college students and graduates who lived in the foster care system. How did you meet and interview them?

In 2019, I launched a national study in which I worked with people who ran foster youth programs at colleges and universities. We reached out to college administrators and asked them to recommend students to participate in the study, handed out flyers, and recruited through social media.

We paid the students a stipend to participate. My team and I interviewed them, on average an hour or so each over two or three interviews, to get really comprehensive information, from their time in foster care to their preparation and transition to college, and the realities of what it’s like to be a college student in foster care. Many of them were young people who were currently in college. Few had graduated, and even fewer were graduate students.

We wanted to include a broad network of people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, because it’s mostly youth of color who are disproportionately impacted, particularly Black youth and Native and Indigenous youth. We wanted to include a larger group of people who identified their sexual orientations beyond heterosexuality. And diversity in the time they spend in foster care — we know that those who age out of foster care are the most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness, contact with the criminal punishment system, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, etc. We really intended to create a strong cohort of students to learn from.

Once we started interviewing, many of them recommended their peers to participate in the study, in part because, for many of them, what they shared is that they have very few opportunities to give voice to their own experiences.

What did you learn from the students you interviewed?

One of the things we learned is that a lot of the youth in the book choose college through a frame of belonging: “How do I identify with institutions that demonstrate value to me and my identity as a foster youth?” Institutions that offer college access and support programs for foster youth — they see that as a sign that that’s a place where they might find community and a place to belong.

We also see that the transition to college can be difficult, especially when there is no family support to move and buy everything you need, so students rely on a very wide constellation of kinship networks: their chosen family. They are skilled at developing supportive and authentic relationships not only with peers who become family, but also with former social workers, former teachers, and educators. That family capital becomes a resource for them when it comes to accessing college.

What did you learn about students in California?

Going deeper

Guardian Scholars is a chapter-based organization on college campuses that assists youth who have been in foster care or experiencing homelessness. The program provides students with financial assistance, resources for basic needs, mentoring, career advice, and more.

Guardian Scholars was founded at CSU Fullerton in 1988 and has since expanded to all CSU campuses, as well as community colleges and other universities across the state.

The national recognition of the Guardian Scholars program and the fact that it is so visible is an attractive motivator for youth in care because it tells them that this is a place where there will be people like me and that I won’t be stigmatized as I might be elsewhere.

Most student affairs administrators working at a university or The university may not be aware of federal funding or state-specific policies and resources that youth in care may be eligible for. Those who work with and lead Guardian Scholars programs are well aware of these types of resources and many of the challenges that youth in care face.

In your book you include concepts such as “aspirational capital” and “resilient capital.” What do these terms mean in the context of foster youth?

One of the frameworks that I use is what’s called community cultural wealth. This is a framework that Tara Yosso wrote about in 2005. What she argues is that people of color naturally have what she calls community cultural wealth, and these are the various undervalued and underrecognized forms of capital that we often use to navigate systems that weren’t designed for us.

One such form of capital is aspirational capital: how are people of color able to maintain such high aspirations in the face of so many structural failures?

Navigational capital is what allows us to draw on the experience we gain in navigating systems that were not designed for us, whether it is navigating the bureaucracy of the welfare system or local politics, or even inequalities in school. Being able to strategically manage and maneuver these systems becomes a resource for us when we are faced with different situations, such as applying to and persisting in college.

Community cultural richness is a framework that many scholars of color working in communities of color have found valuable when trying to contextualize the experiences of people of color in education.

How can we possibly successfully navigate this system and structure that is not designed for us and continues to fail us? I believe that the cultural richness of the community provides a language for the strategies, resources, and working repertoires that we draw upon to maneuver.