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More area colleges are being recognized for assisting students from the foster care system

Jaleshia Brown graduated from UC Blue Ash in 2021
Jaleshia Brown
Jaleshia Brown graduated from UC Blue Ash in 2021

This year, UC Blue Ash and Antioch College have joined the growing list of southwest Ohio schools to earn the Ohio Reach Postsecondary Designation, joining Miami University and Wright State.

Ohio Reach is a network of advocates for youth from the foster care system administered by the Ohio Children's Alliance. The organization provides them with access to higher education opportunities.

A designation from Ohio Reach means the school is recognized for its work to assist former foster care students and can receive additional support from the organization to further improve its programs.

Since schools began receiving designations in 2023, 40 institutions across the state have earned the honor so far.

Laurie Malone, Academic Advising Director at UC Blue Ash says that designation is a big deal. That's especially true for schools like Blue Ash that have a large population of first-generation college students, some of which come from the foster care system. UC Blue Ash has identified 40 students as foster care alumni, but there could be more.

"We believe there's more students that are already here," Malone told WVXU. "With this new destination, this is giving us opportunities for resources to build trust with our students."

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Colleges with programs like these can offer monetary support, food, and sometimes even housing to ease the financial burden on students. Jaleshia Brown, a former foster kid, and 2021 UC Blue Ash graduate says this kind of support can dramatically improve a student's chances of success in higher education, but getting students on board can be a challenge.

"It's not always easy for us to accept that help because we've been let down so many times," Brown said. "We may not be that forthcoming with the information."

Brown says too often, foster kids don't want to disclose their background and can sometimes suffer in silence instead of asking for help.

Brown had been in the foster care system since she was a young child, frequently bouncing from foster home to foster home where the rules were always changing. She says her childhood was filled with instability, trauma, and abuse. Once she reached her teens, she had an idea of where she wanted to go in life but there were many obstacles.

After high school, she had a child and struggled to find success in college largely due to a lack of money and support. As a single mother and student, she experienced homelessness and for a time lived in her car while getting an associate degree at Cincinnati State and continuing her education at Blue Ash.

While she was in college, academic advisors were there to help and connect her to needed resources, but there was still something missing.

"The supports were there. Everybody was doing their job, but there was no actual connection to actually help me through that," Brown said.

That's why she's so excited about the Ohio Reach Designation. Brown, who now works professionally with foster kids says a school can only receive the destination if it meets certain criteria like having a designated campus liaison. The destination also provides training for school staff so they can better understand the challenges students face coming out of the foster care system. That can make all the difference.

"Just someone who's genuinely there for us and that just keeps showing that, 'Hey, no matter how much you push me away, or want me here or don't want me here, or whatever. I'm still here and I have these resources for you,'" Brown told WVXU.

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Craig Bennett, Senior Director of Student Success at Miami University says the Ohio Reach name is trusted by students leaving foster care, which makes seeking help less intimidating. When marketing to high school counselors and students, Miami puts the Ohio Reach logo right next to its own.

"Students from foster recognize the Ohio Reach symbol and automatically recognize that there's somebody on campus who understands and has worked with other foster care students," Bennett said. "It allows students to make a decision on where they want to attend."

Miami and UC Blue Ash agree providing these students with the tools they need will encourage more foster kids to pursue their education, which will in turn make college campuses more diverse.

Brown wants to see more money put into programs across the state so more colleges can intervene in students' lives earlier and set them on a path with fewer challenges. She believes students like her have a lot of strengths they can bring to the academic world, they only need the opportunity.

"They're survivors, they're fighters, and they adapt. They have been their whole lives," she said. "And that's all you need to start."

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.