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OMSAR developing ways to support former foster care youth

Emancipated foster care youth are thrust into adulthood once they reach the age of 18. They are often left to navigate the first year of college without much-needed support.

This truth recently prompted a partnership between Jacob Okumu, Ohio University Office of Multicultural Student Access and Retention resident counselor, and Cecil Walters, the director of OMSAR. 

Through their leadership, Ohio University is reaching out to emancipated foster care students across campus. Okumu estimates that there are about 300 students at Ohio University who have been in the foster care system.

Networks of support

On Oct. 12, Okumu was awarded the Paul P. Fidler Research Grant, a national award to pursue research on the transitions that emancipated foster care youth experience in college.

"I hope through sharing their stories of how their transitional experiences are here, that we will be able to come up with a program that specifically targets them," said Okumu.

When Okumu first told Walters that he applied for the grant, "bells sounded off in my head," Walters said. Enthusiastic about the potential impacts of the program, Walters renewed his position as a liaison with the Ohio Reach Program*.

The Ohio Reach Program is a statewide initiative to support the retention and recruitment of emancipated foster care youth in higher education. The program is directly linked to institutions across the state through on-campus liaisons. Walters plans to carry out his duties as a liaison by designating OMSAR as an office of support for emancipated foster care students.

"I really want to integrate (Ohio Reach) seamlessly with what we offer already through OMSAR," said Walters. "Much of what we do -- academic related, community service and leadership -- will definitely
relate to this group."

One way that OMSAR will serve emancipated foster care youth is through LINKS, a mentorship program for first-year students. The program offers peer mentorship, free tutoring and workshops that promote academic success.

"The LINKS program, I think, is a huge bonus for this population (emancipated foster care youth) because they're going to start college with a lot of support from the jump that they wouldn't
ordinarily get at other institutions," said Walters.

Walters added that emancipated foster care youth could also benefit from OMSAR's merit-based scholarships , which are specifically geared toward students from disproportionally-represented populations.

"We are seeing that there is this group that we have potentially neglected, so we seek to make ourselves and the college campus aware of this situation and proactively create interventions that will promote retention and academic success," said Walters.

Programming for success

Emancipated foster care youth have experiences that are unique and different from the average college student. Without a home to go back to, some students who grew up in the foster care system are left without options during academic breaks. And without parents to visit, family weekends can be lonely.

"As an office, we are seeing how we can create some programing for these students. So whether it's Moms Weekend, Dads Weekend or Sibs Weekend, those students will have something to do while the rest of their peers are with their families," said Walters

Additionally, Walters hopes to orchestrate holiday activities and housing options during the break between semesters – creating a sense of community among emancipated foster care youth.

"There's a lot of stigma associated with being in foster care in one form or another. We don't want to talk about foster care, especially if someone has had a really terrible experience with it. The idea of trying to motivate them to share their story in a positive way -- that gives me a sense of hope and joy," said Okumu.

He is in the process of searching for emancipated foster care students who would be willing to share their experiences, so he and Walters can continue to find specific ways to help them succeed.

"We can offer some services now but we have to identify who those students are, and that is the toughest part," said Walters. "We have to do different things to address this population in the way that they need to be addressed."

For more information or to take part in Okumu’s research, contact Cecil Walters at waltersc@ohio.edu.

* Website takes you outside the Ohio University server

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