June 2, 2014.
Former foster child is headed to UCLA with all-expenses-paid fellowship.
Festus Ohan, a graduating UC Riverside senior who grew up in foster care, has been accepted at nine medical schools. He will attend UCLA on a fellowship that will cover all of his expenses.
The acceptance letters kept coming. UC Riverside School of Medicine. UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. UC Davis. UC San Francisco. Cornell. Columbia. USC. Northwestern. University of Pittsburgh.
Festus Ohan was elated. Nine letters in all.
Not bad for a young man who spent his teen years in foster care with providers who labeled his dream of becoming a physician “unrealistic.” Not bad by any measure, said Dr. Neal Schiller, senior associate dean of student affairs at the UCR School of Medicine.
“It is quite impressive to have received nine acceptances. Only exceptional students would receive this many offers,” he said. “Festus Ohan is a unique, gifted student who has overcome incredible obstacles to achieve his dream. We are very proud of him.”
Ohan, 22, will enroll at UCLA in August, the recipient of a David Geffen Medical Scholarship that will provide full financial support including a living stipend, tuition, room and board, books and supplies. It was the only medical school to offer that level of financial support, a factor that influenced his decision to enroll there.
“I’m looking forward to medical school and learning how to heal patients,” said the 22-year-old who will graduate from UC Riverside in June with a degree in neuroscience. “I will miss UCR. People here were excited about my dreams and believed I could do it. I had mentors who supported me and inspired me to believe in myself. ”
Only 2 percent of children who age out of foster care graduate from a four-year college, said Tuppett Yates, a UCR associate professor of psychology and director of the Guardian Scholars Program, which provides support for students who have aged out of foster care. Only a small percentage of those who earn a bachelor’s degree make it to graduate school in any discipline.
“Festus has everything it takes to be an outstanding physician,” Yates said. “He is smart, hardworking and an expansive thinker, but most importantly he is also kind, generous and unassuming. He embodies the highest standards of both scholarship and citizenship in our community.”
Ohan was removed from the care of his mother at age 5 and was 13 when his father abandoned him and one of his two sisters, resulting in their placement in foster care. The second sister lived in Nigeria with their father’s family for several years before returning to the United States, and foster care.
Like most children raised in the foster-care system, Ohan lived in multiple homes, attended multiple high schools, and felt unwanted and inadequate. But he was determined to attend college and earned the grades necessary for admission to the University of California.
At UCR, Ohan was introduced to the Guardian Scholars Program. Friendships developed with other students and mentors. After a difficult first year, he found success as a scholar, switched to a neuroscience major, and earned a 4.0 grade point average in several quarters.
“I knew college was going to be really hard and I was hesitant about pursuing my aspirations,” Ohan recalled. “I came in as a political science major because I was too afraid of majoring in the sciences. Guardian Scholars felt like a family. There was comfort in knowing that if something came up or I fell down, there were people who would help me.”
Ohan enrolled in UCR’s FastStart program, a five-week summer program for incoming freshmen — primarily disadvantaged students — who aspire to medical and other science-based careers. The goal is to get them off to a strong start in critical science curriculum and to provide the academic and social support needed to be successful.
“Before FastStart I hadn’t realized I could do this,” he said of his desire for a career in medicine. “Even though I said I wanted to be a doctor, I didn’t think I could. People here believed that I could.”
He attended the Harvard Summer PreMedical Institute, volunteered at Loma Linda University Medical Center and helped found the UCR Unnatural Causes student organization, which raises awareness about disparities in health care. He served as the group’s president this year.
One of his role models for the kind of physician he wants to be is the surgeon who treated his sister for scoliosis while the two teens were in foster care.
“He was so compassionate and I saw how he improved the quality of her life,” he recalled. “I want to do the same. I will treat everyone with respect and dignity, despite their economic standing.”
Despite the hardships of his childhood, he said he knows that others in foster care experienced worse and lost their way.
“A lot of my foster brothers and sisters had goals of going to college and finding their dream job, but somewhere along the way they gave up,” he said. “I am grateful that I met people who were able to turn their own lives around and inspired me.”
His advice to others in similar circumstances? “Have confidence in your abilities. Try to meet several mentors along the way who are positive influences. Don’t give up.”
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