Graduate Citings: Tales from the Field – Molly Sarubbi

Molly-Sarubbi-Graduate-Citings-Tales-From-the-FieldWelcome back pios! We’re so elated to have you back on campus this fall, it’s been so lonely without having your bright, shining, studious faces around here! We hope that you had wonderful and relaxing (is that possible in grad school?) summer breaks. To get you pumped up for your upcoming papers, projects, and presentations we’re excited to highlight the work of Molly Sarubbi, a PhD student in the Morgridge College of Education. She is working to break down the silos and broaden the focus surrounding the role that foster youth histories play throughout the higher education experience. Happy reading!

Researcher: Molly Sarubbi, PhD student enrolled in the Higher Education program in DU’s Morgridge College of Education. She is also a policy researcher for the Postsecondary Institute at the Education Commission of the States (ECS).

Initial Inspiration: As a foster care alumni and lifelong advocate, I am intimately aware of not only the barriers this population faces but their resounding resiliency. I am committed to sharing these narratives. In addition to experiencing prolonged abuse and maltreatment, numerous transitions, and long-term disparities in support resources, foster youth face significant obstacles to educational attainment. Of the almost 400,000 youth in the system this year, 26,000 youth will exit foster care at age 18.  Only 46% will graduate high school, and less 3% of those will go to college (AFCARS, 2015). I have seen these disparate odds play out over and over, whether it was in my own peer groups, the families I worked with as a director of an urban family YMCA, or in the advocacy role I serve through research and mentoring within the foster care system.  These youth, their voices, and their stories of persistence continue to be absent within higher education discourses, and policy agendas. The need to fill in these gaps continues inspire my own research and practice.

Current Research: My scholarship and practice focuses broadly on equity through the examination of the relationship between traditionally under-served communities, higher education, and policy. Grounded in a commitment to social justice and equity in education, I focus broadly on access for traditionally under-served students and families, with a specific emphasis on educational pathways for former foster care youth, and the resulting imperatives for higher education policy and practice.

Much of my work is grounded in asset-based collaboration with communities, and various advocacy initiatives for foster youth. I have been a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and youth mentor for 7 years, and work to help guide children through court and education systems. Similarly, I continue to build alliances across national foster youth support programs, and work to increase awareness about the educational barriers for this population.

As I continue to build my research portfolio, I work towards honing my skills as a critical, qualitative researcher, centering the resilient voices and experiences of this population.  This past summer, I collaborated on an multi-institutional, interdisciplinary project investigating the impact of mentoring programs for youth in the child welfare system. My impending dissertation work will examine the experiences of foster youth through post-secondary education. This research will begin to position foster youth narratives  within larger social, ecological, and educational systems, and highlight their resiliency and persistence in higher education.

My expertise in highlighting education attainment for foster youth has lead to my work at Education Commission of the States (ECS) as a Policy Researcher. I am currently leading a project centered on a the development of a 50 state comparative analysis of state financial aid policies that impact foster youth education attainment. A forthcoming brief, release in late October, will include a historical review of  federal and state statute,  analysis of state-based authority for policy implementation, and recommendations for best practices and policy development. Additionally, as a member of the postsecondary team, I serve as a resource for state constituents on a variety of education policy issues including free community college, organization and governance, and the college completion agenda.

Collaborators: I am currently collaborating as a research assistant with my advisor, Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama, to understand the role of families in college transitions, the influence of funds of knowledge in family outreach programs, and  the role that low-income and families of color play in cultivating their children’s educational aspirations and ideologies. We are currently engaged in data analysis and multiple publications resulting from this work. In addition to collaborating with the higher education department faculty, and the other institute staff at ECS, I am proud to work with both local and national community-based organizations that support both families, and foster youth educational access and attainment.

Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenges in doing this important work are the lack of asset-based research, understanding of foster youth experiences, and opportunities for them share their counter narratives.  Research on foster youth has traditionally been siloed within fields of psychology and social work, and often only addresses the negative impact of time spent in foster care on child development and life outcomes. Beyond this focus, there is minimal literature examining the role that foster youth histories play throughout the higher education experience. This scarcity has led to narrow understandings of foster youth persistence and achievement. Furthermore, negative stigmas of individuals in foster care, their distrust in support systems, and inconsistent tracking initiatives can also make it difficult to identify these youth and subsequently share their success narratives.

Research Advice: My major piece of advice may seem obvious, but I have found it to be extremely salient in my own endeavors; do work that you are passionate about!! As an emerging scholar/researcher/practitioner, the process can be isolating. You will constantly question your abilities, feel overwhelmed, and rejection can be tough! However cliche it may sound, it really is what it takes to create real change. Be confident in the importance and potential impacts of your work. While it’s certainly difficult to not be discouraged by setbacks, you have to use the feedback as positive building blocks for moving your important work forward. Having a grounded stake in the meaning of your work helps diminish that rejection and fatigue, and of course, creating a network of people who celebrate your potential never hurts!

*Do you know of any fascinating research happening on campus? If so, send us an email at!

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