College Search for Adoptees — Tips for Parents

college searchBoston Post Adoption Resources provides essential post adoption therapeutic support for everyone in the adoption triad. It is a part of our mission to be a resource for members in the adoption community as well as professionals who work with adoptees and their families.  We are always excited to connect with professionals who work within the adoption community.  This summer, BPAR staff was so pleased to meet with Kate Peltz, the Director of College Counseling at Concord Academy, an independent high school.  Following this exchange, Kate and I decided to collaborate on a blog about adoptees and the college transition. 

Throughout her years as Director of College Counseling at Concord Academy, Kate Peltz has noticed the young adoptees she works with often encounter unique concerns as they navigate the college search and application process as well as their transition to college. Kate reached out to BPAR because she wanted to make sure she is being as mindful as possible as she works with her adopted students and their families around the college search. We loved collaborating with Kate and hearing about her wish to respect these adoptive families’ boundaries, to listen closely to their needs, and to affirm their unique experiences.  We look forward to many more conversations with Kate, and we were inspired by her thoughtfulness as we discussed the issues that might arise for adoptees and their families during the college search and transition process.


Identity and Presenting a Student’s Story

Adolescence is a natural time of self-exploration, and the college process further encourages teens to look inward as they sort out who they are now while simultaneously trying to envision who they want to be in the future. Teens already face doubts and insecurities as they grapple with self-discovery.  The college process for adoptees adds even more layers of emotion to the identity search. If the adoptee does not have a lot of information about their story of origin, they can encounter new feelings and worries around their personal early history as they attempt to target certain fields of study and describe themselves on applications. The teen adoptee may begin to wonder about their birth parents.  Questions inevitably arise around genetics:  Are my birth parents good at art or math? Did they pursue certain majors in college that I am also interested in? Will I have inherited diseases?  Do I have learning challenges that a birth parent also had? All of this adds another layer to the identity search.

As students begin to think about writing their college essays, they may consider whether to write about their experience as an adoptee.  At the same time, however, some adoptees express concerns about feeling like a “commodity,” as if they are a product who has been “branded” in order to sell themselves to a college, and this can feel uncomfortable to them. Kate Peltz talks about a student that she worked with: “As a transnational, transracial adoptee, my student grew up feeling like this thing/commodity that his parents had brought home from Korea. One set of parents did not want him, and another set did. When it came time to apply to college and the terms ‘brand’ and ‘market’ were used to describe selling oneself in the application process, he was right back to that old painful feeling of being a thing of questionable desirability.” Kate Peltz adds, “In addition to being branded, I think some adoptees express not wanting to write an essay that exploits their adoption narrative or comes across as seeking pity.  Others express not wanting to ‘cheapen’ their very personal story by sharing it with strangers.”

At BPAR, we often encourage adoptees that we work with to find safe and therapeutic ways to process their adoption journey. Often, children and adults find creative outlets to process their feelings, including artwork and writing.  Kate remarks that it is sometimes difficult to sort out how distant or detailed to be about a student’s adoption story in the college essay. Kate states, “Writing might be a chance to work through history that is complex or even painful, and can help students better understand themselves and their relationships. As an educator, I never want to censor or shut down a student who is in the midst of important identity development. Yet as a college counselor it is my job to help students consider their audience and avoid writing that comes across as overly-confessional. This balance can be a delicate one for all involved.”

Clinicians at BPAR have counseled high school students who are working on their college applications, and at times, our clients have expressed feeling unprepared for the flood of feelings that might arise if they choose to write about their adoption story. Providing a safe and therapeutic space for support around this process is essential. On a final note, we believe parents who read their child’s essay should be aware that, as Kate Peltz states, “some essays that feel right for the student might feel painful for the parents.” We often remind parents that finding support for themselves and remembering to prioritize self care is just as important for them as it is for their child during this stressful time.

Theme of Rejection

The college search can underscore worries of rejection for even the most confident of teens.  Throughout their lives, adoptees may struggle with issues around rejection that may originate with their initial removal from their birth mother.  As the adoptee moves into the teen years, they often begin to wonder about their birth mother and question her decision to place them for adoption.  Underlying distress about rejection can get triggered as the adoptee waits to hear from colleges and worries that certain schools might not “want” them.

Race and Sexuality

A discussion of the college search and identity would not be complete without a section addressing race and sexuality.  As students begin to look at their own personal stories and their personal history, and as identity issues surface during adolescence, teens begin to look more deeply at issues around race and sexuality.  Children who have not previously expressed concerns around their race or sexuality might start bringing up issues at this time. Once the transracial adoptee has transitioned to college, it might be the first time they are living in an environment where it is not obvious that they do not share the same ethnicity as their parent.  We have had clients tell us that this experience has had a significant impact on their identity search. Kate Peltz adds much insight to this issue. She has found that some transracial adoptees that she has worked with “might have questions about whether they will be safe on campuses, or have concerns about campus climate that they do not feel comfortable discussing with their parents because their parents have not experienced being a minority.” Young adoptees who have described their adoptive parents as “race blind” have at times expressed concerns that this parenting approach has not prepared them for incidents at college that have targeted their minority status.

Leaving Home

The transition from living at home during high school and moving to a college dorm can be challenging for teens and parents alike. Social media is full of stories about parents and kids struggling to say goodbye during that infamous freshman year drop-off.  Indeed, leaving home, whether the purpose is to go off to college or to begin a job, brings up its own challenges for all involved; for the adoptee and their family, there are added layers to these challenges. Some parents worry that their child will leave for school and not wish to return; adoptees might worry that they are hurting their family’s feelings if they decide to go to a school that is far away.  We’ve heard adoptees talk about how much their family has done for them, and given so much to adopt them, and they don’t want to seem ungrateful.

5 Ways Parents Can Help in the College Search Process

  1. Remember that the identity questions your teen is experiencing are a normal part of the college search process, and they are heightened by the identity issues that arise specifically for the teen adoptee.
  2. Remind your child that you are available if they would like to talk about some of the concerns that have come up around their adoption during this process.
  3. Remind your child that they can write about their adoption history in their college application if they wish to, but this is a choice that is entirely up to them.
  4. Reassure your child that you are there to support their search, and you will not feel hurt by the choices they make.
  5. Kate Peltz sums up perfectly: “Tell your child every day you love them and that love is not conditional on where they are admitted to college.”

About Erica Kramer, MSW

Erica Kramer, MSW, is the former Operations and Intake Director at Boston Post Adoption Resources.