Nova Scotia

Free tuition for former kids in care 'like a dream come true'

More post-secondary schools in Nova Scotia are offering free tuition to people who were once in the child welfare system. Two students say the bursary is helping them chase their dreams.

Bursaries allow those once in child welfare system to study at some post-secondary schools for free

Levon Beck graduated with her high school diploma earlier this year through the adult learning program at the Nova Scotia Community College. She is pictured with her service dog, Thomas. (Applehead Studio/Submitted by Levon Beck)

Levon Beck didn't know if she'd ever graduate from high school, let alone attend college or begin to dream of something beyond that.

At a time when most high school students are thinking of exams and extracurriculars, Beck was in and out of mental health care, grappling with issues stemming from trauma in her early years.

It wasn't until last year that Beck, now 28, could finally hold her high school diploma and say, "I did it."

"It was one of the happiest moments because it's finally like, I'm not going to let the past win. I'm stronger than my circumstances and I can overcome it," she said.

Before her graduation from the adult learning program at the Nova Scotia Community College — a program that helps adults get their high school diploma — one of her instructors asked what she would do afterward. But financially, post-secondary education seemed like an unattainable goal.

This fall, however, Beck became part of a new program at the community college, one of a growing number of post-secondary institutions in Canada that offer tuition support to people who were once in the child welfare system. Mount Saint Vincent University, Dalhousie University, the University of King's College and Saint Mary's University have announced similar programs over the past year.

Beck is now a student in the business administration program at the college. She received one of the school's post-care tuition bursaries, which are for people who were once in the child welfare system. (Submitted by Levon Beck)

Beck was in foster care before she was adopted at the age of four. She receives disability support payments because she lives with dissociative identity disorder, a condition likely caused by severe trauma in early childhood, so her income would not allow her to manage living expenses and tuition.

She said when she found out she received the bursary, which covers her tuition, "I literally broke down and cried." Beck started a business administration course at the college earlier this month. Now, when asked what she'll do after graduation, there's no hesitation.

"Can I tell you my dream?" she asks.

Beck's goal is to open a non-profit and society to help people with dissociative identity disorder access treatment.

"I want to help others who are from similar pasts, and to actually have the opportunity to do so is just amazing."

Former youth in care often face challenges

People who were formerly in care, including in foster homes, group homes or other residential facilities, often have lower education levels, higher unemployment rates, a greater chance of experiencing homelessness and being involved with the criminal justice system, and poorer health and social outcomes than those who were not in care, said Jacquie Gahagan.

Gahagan, who worked to implement the tuition waiver program at Dalhousie and King's before recently joining MSVU as associate vice-president, plans to conduct research on how tuition waivers benefit people who were once in care.

Jacquie Gahagan is the associate vice-president of research at Mount Saint Vincent University. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

For Gahagan, who uses they/them pronouns, ensuring that marginalized people have access to education is an ethical issue. It's also personal.

As a youth, Gahagan lived in a group home for a year, then in two different foster families and eventually aged out of the system.

Gahagan dropped out of high school, eventually got their real estate licence and then did "the world's longest undergrad degree" while working several jobs before turning to graduate-level studies.

Without a family of origin to rely on for help with housing, food or tuition, Gahagan said a bursary would have made the pursuit of higher education much easier.

Now, they have words of encouragement for people who were once in care: "Don't give up — because education is something that no one can take away from you. It's a lifelong benefit."

'I probably would have had to ... forget that dream'

For Owen, the opportunity to study English and psychology at MSVU is "almost like a dream come true."

Owen is not the student's real name. The CBC is not naming him because he doesn't feel comfortable sharing publicly that he was once in care.

Now 33, he spent the first five years of his life in foster care before being adopted. 

"People take for granted knowing their roots, knowing where they come from, and it gives them honestly a good place to start in life."

For those who don't have that footing, he said, "the whole self-discovery process is a lot more challenging and you really don't know who you are as fast or where you want to go."

Owen said before starting at MSVU in January, he ran his own retail business, but he always had a passion for learning and read textbooks in his spare time.

He's received straight As since starting university, and hopes to some day do graduate work in psychology and become a researcher. 

"I probably would have had to kind of forget that dream. But the Mount allowed me to chase it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

now