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Ohio Reach

Ohio Reach lends hand to students

Former foster care students receive support from university.

After Whitney Belcher's first semester in college, she credits opening up her social life to her peer mentor and friends from the Ohio Reach Scholars Program. 

By being in the foster care system before college, Belcher, an undecided freshman, said the program — a support system for former foster care students — impacted how she met and trusted people because her living situations had been temporary. 

“It’s a good feeling to have (Ohio Reach) when everybody ... has you believe you’re not going to make it anywhere in life,” Belcher said. “Then you come in with this group, and you boost each other up ... It’s different, and it’s nice.”

During Dads Weekend, Belcher celebrated her birthday with her Ohio Reach group by ice skating and getting ice cream. 

The Office for Multicultural Student Access and Retention has found alternative solutions for Family Weekends, such as Dads Weekend, where students in Ohio Reach Scholars Program could attend a full day of activities.

“Seeing everybody in the dorms having their families come down is really hard ... I usually sit in my room all weekend, but (OMSAR) had (the events) and that got me out,” Belcher said. “Even though I don’t want to go because I feel so bad, I usually feel a lot better after.”

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Jacob Okumu, coordinator for student outreach and developmental services in OMSAR, said a question on the OU application has helped OMSAR identify about 300 students who have had an affiliation with foster care. Of those 300, he said the office was able to reach out to 12 who immediately expressed interest in being a part of Ohio Reach’s inaugural class this year.

There are 12 students in the program, and Okumu said the office will try and recruit more prospective students for next year’s freshman class through a Thanksgiving dinner Sunday in which seven foster care agencies in Southeast Ohio will participate.

“One of the challenges that we found as we got these students enrolled is they didn’t know they were eligible for health insurance or a tuition voucher,” Marlene De La Cruz-Guzmán, the director of OMSAR, said. “What we’re doing is making (future students) comfortable with the idea of OU being a place where you’ll receive services. And then in the summer, anyone who applies and gets accepted will start getting this information.”

Many can be judgmental or uncomfortable when they do not understand the situations of those who have experienced foster care, Belcher said. Without the support from OMSAR and her peer mentor, she said she would not still be in college.

De La Cruz-Guzmán said OMSAR had a lot of help from other offices on campus, such as Undergraduate Admissions and Department of Housing and Residence Life, which are able to help Ohio Reach students with financial aid or health insurance.

“As crazy as it seems to (plan for next year) around Thanksgiving, we don’t want new students to feel isolated,” she said. “They need to know they have a safe space.”

Okumu said the Ohio Attorney General's Office wants OU to "pave the way" for this kind of programming and research on foster youth and the services that a university can provide for that group of students. 

“A lot of people don’t understand or they just don’t know anything about (the foster care system),” Isaiah Polk, a freshman studying pre-med and Ohio Reach Scholar, said. “When you come to a group where everybody understands — you’ve done it. That’s comforting.”

Kim Reynolds, a junior studying media and social change and an Ohio Reach peer mentor, said every Ohio Reach student has had a different experience before coming to OU whether that was being in foster care or adopted. 

"People have this kind of vision that you’re moving house to house," Reynolds said. “There’s a huge stigma, and that’s a really important part of this program to understand what that perspective is.” 


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