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Youth adversity, higher education, and the 'Interloper' complex: The need for relational inclusion

Illustration of a graduate throwing their mortarboard in the air
sell_vector | Vecteezy
Submitted by Stephen Brock, MSW

From the moment of stepping onto university campus, I realised this was just the start of a much longer journey. A journey littered with social and relational challenges. Despite being surrounded by scores of people with similar interests and goals, a gnawing sense persisted in me. I felt like an outsider, an interloper – "someone who becomes involved in an activity or a social group without being asked, or enters a place without permission."

I went to the university in the same town I grew up as a child. And although I had been on the campus many times before, usually biking through it to get somewhere else, I always saw it as a foreign land. Complete with its own culture, rituals and ceremonies. Whenever I would cut through the campus, I would yearn to be there and immerse myself in the culture. However, 'this was not for me', I would think. Not because of any real reason, other than my sense of self at the time.

I left the neighbourhood at about 15 years old. Going to live in a residential home. Growing up with adversities and childhood trauma, I struggled during my teenage years. Family relationships deteriorated and peer relationships led to... well, shall we say, some drifting and hell-raising. After residential living, I 'graduated' to independent living, through which I was well supported. I got help getting into my apartment, and getting financially stable. I had a part-time job and was even starting college. Everyone thought 'we've done well here, he's on the right path now.'

But despite all the practicalities being in place, there was always something missing. It was lonely, and I would regularly experience feelings of emptiness and isolation. That is the best way to describe it. I never made it through college. I left when there was a strike by the instructors in the very first term of my first year. You see, I couldn't quite settle in, connect with others, and felt too out of place. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I jumped to get out and get my tuition money back.

Don't get me wrong, the staff in the residential home did well. I learned much from them and they helped me in many ways. However, what they didn't know was that my sense of being an interloper had a much longer history.

Transition troubles

It fully surfaced with the transition into high school. The first days of high school are accompanied by some level of anxiety for anyone. For me, that anxiety was off the chart. As I walked into the city's largest high school where about 3000 other teens were congregating daily, it quickly dawned on me how overwhelming this would be. Daily. To be surrounded by so many, but feel so disconnected. Navigating the social dynamics of this world was taxing on the mind. A yearning to connect, but, the internal barriers – instilled through adversities in childhood – interfered.

Gradually, things started to fall apart. Funny how this started really: by losing track of time. Getting out of the house late in the morning, getting to school late, and having to go into the classroom with a bunch of peers I didn't know, staring. What would the teacher say, how do I respond? It was only that. But the anxiety was too great. I remember standing outside the room of a morning class, being late, wanting to go in, and walking away. Eventually showing up late led to skipping classes, which led to just not going. Then came the hell-raising. Then came the residential home.

After three high schools in three cities, I somehow managed to graduate. Yet always yearned for a place where I would 'belong' and 'feel' connected. I was the only young person in my graduating high school who lived independently in their own apartment.

After retreating from college came the lost years. Hell-raising 2.0 and a period of great instability. Trying to reconnect with family, and childhood friends and go back in time to a safer more secure place. And I use the term retreating purposefully, to reflect that sense of this being a battle.

Once settled again back in my home town and moving forward I reconnected with a childhood friend, Rob. We picked up our friendship quickly from where we left off. With Rob, it was safe, it was secure. He 'got me' and I 'got him'. I think we both had a sense of being settled in each other's company. At least I felt this when I was in his company. He knew about my experiences and he helped me reflect.

It was Rob who helped me change my perception of myself, helped me believe I was worthy of going to university. He bolstered me enough to conjure enough courage in myself to apply – an effort for which I am ever grateful. He also knew how to help me navigate in and out of some social contexts in which I struggled. More importantly, how to apply for university, believe it or not. How to navigate the bureaucracy, the system. He had already done this and was finishing a Masters. I would be a mature student having another go in the world of higher education.

Adversity and learned resilience

I got accepted into my home town university. The same one I used to walk through and tell myself, 'you don't belong here, just keep passing through'. However, I could never shed the sense of being an interloper. I knew I had every right to be there... but it didn't feel like it.

It was in December 2022 when an insightful and important piece of research was published about care-experienced young people in higher education, research that echoed my experience, that things started becoming clearer for me.

According to the study:

"while students with a care background are considered to be resilient, celebrating their achievements in this way diminishes the failure of the systems and processes that meant they had to ‘fight’ to take (and keep) their place."

While working through my undergraduate degree I also reconnected with many of my other childhood friends. Many had gone into a trade or made their way through more creative means. Others continued to navigate university education. Of them, I was the only one with care experience. But each had adversities, many experiences were shared, and some were unique to each of us.

For those of us going through higher education, we often talked about navigating the challenges and celebrated our successes. For those not going, we encouraged our friends to go. Many did not. However, we would all laugh at and ridicule students from more privileged backgrounds about what we saw as their 'trivial' problems. This wasn't right at the time. For all of us, it was a way to legitimise ourselves. For some of us, it was a way to rationalise not going to further education. For those of us that did, it was to convince ourselves we earned this, we deserve this. I remember one of my friends saying,

"I heard some guy talking about not passing his economics exam and complaining that he might have to retake the course in the summer. How it would ruin his holiday travel arrangements. Hell, I'm gonna be doing three courses in the summer. The only travelling I'm doing is between my crappy apartment, the pizza shop and campus!"

We listened to each other's ambitions, growing interests and what we were learning about. But some of the more interesting discussions were about the differences we noticed in our life experiences compared with many of our fellow students.

"Do you ever talk about the neighbourhood or your past with anyone on campus", I once asked a friend.

"No. They won't get it. I talk to you. You know it just as well as me, and that saves me having to relive it, legitimise myself and I don't have to manage their discomfort."

"I get that,” I said. "Let's get a coffee and go see what's happening in the neighbourhood."

"Talk to me about that stats class you’re doing this summer, for the third time by the way," my friend replied.

Where someone may have seen the simplest achievements as being a matter of fact, between ourselves we fully appreciated the significance and value to self in them. Like making all the classes in one month despite holding anxiety, family detachments, not feeling comfortable speaking up in seminars, being embarrassed for no apparent reason, feeling alone during holiday breaks when everyone is talking about 'going home', wanting to give up.

How do we foster a sense of belonging?

My experience of higher education was at first unsuccessful with college. Success in higher education, and university, came later with the support of key childhood friends I happened to reconnect with. I didn't have these resources around when I first went to college and the result was immediate.

Overall, higher education was positive for my life trajectory and prospects. But it was a fight. If I had not reconnected with Rob and my other neighbourhood friends, it would be fair to say I would not have attended university or been able to navigate the social dynamics and the system effectively enough to graduate and achieve an undergraduate degree and then an MSW.

The successful transition was into university. With the support of a friend. Once the transition was completed, the rest was about coping to maintain, sustain and persist. Making use of my relational resources helped with this.

We need to do better to support young people to consider, and where wanted, to access, navigate and thrive in all ways in any form of higher education. And this needs to be looked at in high school. It was the transitions that tripped me up. Both moving into high school and my first attempt into higher education with college. In both, it was the absence of effective support and relational resources to help with the anxieties, lack of confidence, connectedness and belonging.

Many young people don't have the resources that were available to me. Or have the fortune of reconnecting with familiar people from their past, which may help them move forward.

To have a more inclusive approach to higher education for the care of experienced children, we must look further upstream to the high school transition and experience. To support young people to experience relational connectedness and belonging to counter the inner interloper. Each time a child or young person is sent out of the classroom, suspended or excluded as part of their educational experience, the inner interloper grows stronger.

If a young person is struggling in education, under whatever circumstances, but especially if they have or are enduring adversities in their lives, reach out to them. Ask "do you feel like you belong here, with us?” If they don't, how can you help that young person feel like they do?


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