REACHing students: A look at the support offered by Alabama REACH

REACHing+students%3A+A+look+at+the+support+offered+by+Alabama+REACH

Shannon Hubbard, a graduate of the University’s School of Social Work, is the director of the Alabama REACH program.

Rebecca Rakowitz

On the day after Christmas of her senior year of high school, Dominique Anderson was exiled from her family. 

Her parents found out that she was lesbian and cut her off, forcing her to leave home, finish high school on her own, put herself through college, and causing her grandparents to take on a parent role and provide kinship care. 

But during her freshman year at The University of Alabama she was introduced to a new kind of family: she was introduced to Alabama REACH. 

Alabama REACH is a program in the academic affairs division of The University of Alabama that aims to empower and support students who are current and former foster youth, orphans, emancipated minors, unaccompanied minors, those in kinship care, wards of the state and homeless youth. The goal of the program is to help these students pursue higher education, succeed and graduate since currently, somewhere between seven and 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in higher education, and only about 2 percent receive a bachelor’s degree, according to the Alabama REACH website.

The program, which was started around five years ago by then-President Judy Bonner, is run by Shannon Hubbard, a graduate of the University’s School of Social Work. 

“It was started basically because we had a foster student show up on the steps of Rose Administration with his admissions letter, not knowing what else he needed to do to be enrolled in school,” Hubbard said. “And so Dr. Bonner…thought we needed to establish something for those students, because surely if we had one we had to have more and just not know about them.”

The program consists of REACH Up, which supports current University students, REACH Back, which focuses on supporting high school students and other future students, and REACH Out which involves community partners.

REACH Up acts much like a general social work practice and resource center, supporting students in whatever ways they need, connecting them with resources on campus, and creating and providing resources for them as well.

One such resource is REACH’s twice-monthly study sessions. 

Anderson said she really enjoys the study sessions provided by REACH because they are not like a typical study hall. There is dinner and a chance to get to know each other better, making REACH more like a family than a typical campus program. She said that at REACH members never feel like an outsider.

“The most valuable thing that students get through REACH is acceptance from their peers,” Hubbard said. “Because they all come in feeling like they’re the only ones on campus having these problems or feelings and that everybody else looks like they’re walking around with a silver spoon in their mouth and they’re not having to worry about their power being turned off or paying for books.”

After dinner, students have a chance to study with each other or with tutors from several fields that come to the sessions. Math tutors are a staple of Alabama REACH. They are provided by David Cruz-Uribe, department chair of the math department and self-proclaimed REACH groupie. Cruz-Uribe schedules graduate teaching assistants with extra time to work as math tutors for REACH Scholars not only during the study sessions, but 10 hours a week as well.

According to Cruz-Uribe, having math resources available is necessary for and beneficial to REACH Scholars since math is often harder for them due to their transient childhood, which makes it hard to develop a stable and strong math foundation. He said the tutoring is beneficial for the REACH Scholar because it opens them up to opportunities in STEM fields that, without math skills, would be unavailable. 

As for the GTAs, he thinks it prepares them to be better teachers.

 “I think it’s helpful for graduate students who are learning to become teachers to learn about those things outside the classroom which impact on students,” Cruz-Uribe said. “Because that is what makes a teacher a better teacher.”

REACH also supports its students in non-academic ways, through programs such as their “Pantry” in Lloyd Hall. The pantry is filled with food products, pharmaceuticals, school supplies and household essentials that REACH Scholars can access at any time. Whereas other students may go home for the weekend and grab a box of tissues, REACH Scholars go to the pantry. It is kept stocked thanks to donations from faculty, staff, organizations on campus, other members of the community and St. Mark United Methodist Church in Northport –one of their biggest supporters.

The church has taken on Alabama REACH as one of its many missions. According to Associate Pastor Rev. Byron Fair, the church’s initial involvement was just that of helping to stock the pantry, but has since grown to hosting pizza and game nights for the students, as well as starting an “adopt a student” program. This program allows Sunday school classes, individuals and families to “adopt” students for whom they send birthday cards, buy Christmas presents, go grocery shopping or get coffee with, and invite to Thanksgiving dinner.

Hubbard hopes to expand Alabama REACH, increase campus recognition, add to its programs, and increase student participation. REACH generally serves around 40 students, but Hubbard said a couple hundred students likely qualify. Recruiting can be difficult, though, since students may not want to admit that they were in the foster care system or are homeless – something that they aren’t required to do once joining the program. 

For students who are uncertain about joining, Hubbard said that joining REACH is not like joining most campus organizations. It is not a program that is demanding of time or money, but rather a resource that gives a lot to its members. 

“[Students eligible for REACH] should know there is a place for you to come and get help, a place for you to come and have support, a place where you can come and be yourself,” Anderson said.

For the students not in the program, Anderson said she hopes they understand that REACH Scholars are not a charity case – a misconception that she believes exists on campus. 

“We’re not,” Anderson said. “We are just regular people who’ve just had a different way of coming up…we are working hard. We are struggling, but we are making it.”

Those interested in learning more about Alabama REACH and finding out how to donate can visit reach.ua.edu.