'Positive step forward': McGill pilots new bursary program for students coming from foster care

Arisha Khan, who spent time in the foster care system, helped McGill University develop its new Youth in Care Bursary.

Arisha Khan, formely in child care, helped develop new Youth in Care Bursary

Arisha Khan was in and out of the foster care system in Ontario for years. She's now in her fourth year at McGill university. (Submitted by Arisha Khan)

As a child growing up in and out of the Ontario foster care system, Arisha Khan never thought she'd attend a university. 

"As a former youth in care I wouldn't think that I have the capacity to go to McGill," she told CBC's Daybreak.

But that's just what she did. Now going into her fourth year in McGill University's International Development and Social Entrepreneurship program, Khan had to overcome a lot to get to where she is.

That's why she decided to author a report for the student union, where she works as the vice-president of finance, about the struggles facing students coming from a similar background.

I almost call it becoming human.- Arisha Khan

Khan went on to help the university develop a new pilot project called the "Youth in Care Bursary," which offers a minimum $5,000 bursary to students coming from the child welfare system for up to four years.

"Anyone in Canada can apply," she explained. "I think this is a really positive step forward."

The bursary, announced Aug. 1, is managed through the financial aid office.

One of the goals listed on the university's site is to "increase the number of current or former foster care youth enrolled in and graduating with a McGill degree."

How she got here

Bouncing around the system from a young age, Khan never qualified as a legal ward of the Crown and wasn't able to receive government funding to help pay for schooling.

She worked close to 40 hours during high school in order to save for tuition and living expenses on her own.
Khan says eventually she started to integrate more into her community and wanted to share her story. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"I almost failed grade nine but after that I kind of realized that if I wanted to get past the system, I had to buck up and this is what it would take," she said.

When she started at McGill, the transition was hard.

"Nobody really understood where I came from," she said. "University became just another burden for me."

A helping hand

Eventually Khan says she was able to start interacting more with her peers, integrating into campus life and sharing her story. 

"I almost call it becoming human," she said.

Her research showed that the students coming from foster care are less likely to graduate high school, with a graduation rate of about half the national average. 

Of those that do finish high school, only about two per cent who go on to post-secondary programs actually graduate from them.

"If you're able to support a student in that first year when they are transitioning out of care, they are more likely to succeed," said Khan. "So that first year of post-secondary is pretty crucial."

With files from CBC Daybreak