Department of Educational Administration


First Advisor

Brent Cejda

Date of this Version


Document Type



Philyaw, J. (2020). Defying the odds, stories of success: A case study of foster care alumni in the community college environment. (Doctoral dissertation).


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Education, Major: Educational Studies (Educational Leadership and Higher Education), Under the Supervision of Professor Brent Cejda. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2020

Copyright 2020 Julia M. Philyaw


The purpose of this dissertation was to explore the lived experiences of foster care alumni and how these experiences influenced the individual’s decision to enroll in a community college, persist, and complete a degree. The dissertation drew from two conceptual frameworks, Bandwidth (Verschelden, 2017) and Capitals – cultural, social, and academic (Bourdieu, 1986; St. John, Hu, & Fisher, 2010). Foster care alumni were selected as the population due to their underrepresentation in college enrollment and poor completion rates. Moving beyond a deficit model that focuses on identifying obstacles, this dissertation focused on success stories of the foster care alumni in an attempt to highlight experiences that contribute to success. Each student who participated in this study is on target to complete a college degree this year. The dissertation tells the stories of six community college students using a case study methodology for data collection and analysis and narrative inquiry for data reporting. During the Fall of 2019, six students shared their stories. The stories were captured through semi-structured interviews that focused on the student’s experience in the foster care system and their entire college lifecycle (from choice to completion). The stories were analyzed, using deductive analysis, for themes related to the primary research question and sub-questions. An additional theme emerged through inductive analysis. The themes identified from the stories are Historical Hardships, Human Connections, Healthy Outlets, and Hopeful Futures. The findings highlight common themes in the student stories that point to the need for and influence of human connections, the benefit of engaging in healthy outlets, and the power of having a mindset that focuses on a hopeful future. The findings also showed, though, that despite achieving a level of success that the overwhelming majority of their foster care alumni peers do not experience, the students still struggle with historical hardships that impact their current lives. However, the students have defied the odds by persisting and moving forward to degree completion.

Adviser: Brent Cejda