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The Liminality of Adoption

Region IV-W Region IV-W
June 6, 2018 Amy Sellers University of Kansas

Before my junior year of college, I had never heard the word “liminality.” I enrolled in the class “Liminality in Spanish Literature” because I had to, not because I knew what it was nor did I have a strong desire to read more in my already literature-heavy major. I soon discovered that liminality is the space “betwixt and between social roles and/or identities” (Ibarra & Obodaru, 2016, p. 47), a transitional space, and the phase of a rite of passage (Field & Morgan-Klein, 2010).  There are many liminal phases throughout one’s life: graduation, summer, engagement, pregnancy, and the whole of one’s college experience. Higher education is seen “not only as a transitional space, but as being ‘liminal’” (Field & Morgan-Klein, 2010) since the student status is a continuously transitory status. For the traditional college-aged student, being in college is the transitionary state between high school and the “real world.” That’s not to say non-traditional students aren’t also going through college as a transitionary period in addition to their full-time job, their transition from military life to civilian life, their responsibilities as a parent, etc.

College is the liminal period between the realization of a student’s desired job and the achievement of earning that job. College is a time to pursue one’s dreams and explore one’s identity; it’s a time to explore critical thinking, independent learning, identity formation, relationships, and diversity (Rutherford & Pickup, 2015). As such, “[student] identities are thought to evolve, as participation and engagement in higher education are experienced over time” (Rutherford & Pickup, 2015, p. 705).  As Erikson states, “[a] sense of identity is never gained nor maintained once and for all. Like a good conscience, it is lost and regained” (Ibarra & Obodaru, 2016, p. 48). The idea that your identity is always fluctuating can relate to a lot of college students, including transracial adoptees. Identity development is a critical component of college life, and being a transracial adoptee adds another layer to that student development.

As a multiracial person and a transracial adoptee, I continuously felt in a liminal space. The questions of “Where are you from?” “What’s your heritage?” “Do you speak Spanish?” were part of my daily routine. Sure, I look Hispanic, but I grew up in a white family. Sure, I can speak Spanish, but it’s because I took it in school and not because I come from Spanish-speaking parents. This feeling of liminality permeated my adoptee identity because I was always in the middle—the middle of knowing where I came from and how I grew up, but also knowing that I had a completely separate family out there who could have raised me. I was in the middle of growing up ethnically white, but looking racially Hispanic. And coming from a closed adoption, I knew that at age 18, I could search for my biological family.

When I went to college at 18, that closed door to my biological family became open for me; it was on my shoulders to search for my biological family when I was ready, and that readiness came at 21. I knew I was graduating soon; I knew what I wanted to do; and I knew who I was and who I had proven myself to be. Not only is college itself a time of liminality; I added the search for my biological family to my already changing identity search and chose to look for my biological family as a senior in college. That period of waiting, wondering, and watching my emails for responses about my search was the pinnacle of liminality during my college career. I started my search as an adoptee with unknown parents, siblings, and distant family. And from that search, I have found a parent, siblings and relatives who can inform me of my birth story, half of my medical history, and family stories. It’s not perfect; it’s taken years of communication, email, and personal meetings to know what I know now; and it’ll take many more years and more searching and more questions to get all the answers, if that’s even possible. But what I do know is that period of liminality tested my patience, made me stronger, and developed more of my adoptive identity, and I want to share that with other college students and adoptees. I certainly didn’t think I would take so much from a Spanish literature class, but I realize that liminality is all around us—during transitions of moving, job changes, changing relationships, etc. If you have a college student who seems to be struggling with transition, or maybe you’re going through some changes yourself, remember to “Honor the space between no longer and not yet” (Nancy Levin), and honor this time of liminality.    


Field, J., & Morgan-Klein, N. (2010). Studenthood and identification: higher education as a liminal

transitional space. Education-Line.

Ibarra, H., & Obodaru, O. (2016). Betwixt and between identities: Liminal experience in

contemporary careers. Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, pp 47-64.

Rutherford V., & Pickup, I. (2015). Negotiating liminality in higher education: Formal and informal

dimensions of the student experiences as facilitators of quality. The European Higher Education Area, pp. 703-723.

What’s Happening Nationally

Be on the lookout for Online Learning Content for the following MultiRacial Topics:

-MultiRacial/Transracial Adoptee Microaggressions

-Transracial Adoptee- What it means?

-Native American Students/Staff


Proposed case studies should be submitted to Dr. Jessica Harris at [email protected] by June 8, 2018 (see below for detailed timeline). A complete proposal should include the following three items:

1. The set of theories for which your proposed case primarily corresponds;

2. A 300 word abstract that briefly details the institutional context, individuals that are central to the case, and the scenario of the proposed case; and

3. A biographical sketch of each of the contributing authors, including institutional affiliation and position (not to exceed 80-words per author). Each case study may include up to four co-authors.

Email Dr. Jessica Harris at [email protected] if you have any further questions.

Amy Sellers is the Region IV-West Knowledge Community Representative for the Multiracial Knowledge Community (MRKC). She works in Student Services at Kansas State University and is writing her dissertation for her PhD in Student Affairs in Higher Education on adoptive development theory within the higher education setting.

For more information about this KC, please visit https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/kcs/multiracial or contact Amy at [email protected].