The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore the lived experiences of former foster youth who have completed graduate level academic programs in order to discover and describe the elements that these individuals believe led to their academic success. The primary research question for this study was: what do former foster youth who completed graduate level programs report as elements that contributed to their academic success? The researcher utilized a qualitative approach and portraiture methodology. In depth, interviews were conducted with six individuals, three women and three men, who spent time in foster care and later went on to obtain graduate level degrees. A qualitative approach and portraiture methodology were utilized to explore and paint an in-depth picture of participants’ compelling stories and perspectives. The data revealed six themes experienced by five or more of the participants including dealing with shame/stigma, being resourceful, having internal drive, being supported by multiple mentors, proving others wrong, and the impact of mental health. Three conclusions resulted from analysis and interpretation of study findings. First, community support in the form of multiple mentors over time was essential to the academic success of former foster youth who entered and completed graduate level programs. Second, despite completing graduate degrees, former foster youth in this study still struggled with the shame/stigma of their past experiences in their personal and professional lives and needed continuing services and support. Third, the circumstances that affected the educational experience of the participants and made their needs unique and challenging in comparison to other students in the school system, were school mobility/instability, dealing with multiple systems, and navigating the shame and trauma. Recommendations for education institutions of all levels (K-12 and higher education) and child and family serving agencies were outlined in order to improve the academic outcomes of future generations of foster students. Recommendations were in relation to professional learning, personnel, mindset, student services, culture/environment, additional resources, and accountability.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Leadership, administration, and policy; Foster children -- Education (Higher); Graduate students -- Attitudes; Self-efficacy; Resilience (Personality trait)

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Purrington, Linda;