Youth who grew up in foster care are welcome and wanted at university.

So says Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Nanaimo which recently announced that they would waive tuition fees for former youth who grew up in foster care.

Partners in VIU’s Tuition Waiver Program include (left to right) MLA Parksville-Qualicum Michelle Stilwell; Ralph Nilson, VIU’s President and Vice-Chancellor; Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk; Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux; Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, and Bill Yoachim, Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services, Snuneymuxw Councilor, VIU Alumnus & Governor. (Vancouver Island University)

Partners in VIU’s Tuition Waiver Program include (left to right) MLA Parksville-Qualicum Michelle Stilwell; Ralph Nilson, VIU’s President and Vice-Chancellor; Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk; Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux; Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, and Bill Yoachim, Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services, Snuneymuxw Councilor, VIU Alumnus & Governor. (Vancouver Island University)

In a speech titled “Listening to the marginalized to address inequality” given at the University of Victoria’s Congress conference in June, Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond called on post-secondary schools to offer free tuition for B.C. youth who spent time in the foster care system.

VIU was the first and to date only university to accept the challenge.

“We hope more public, post-secondary institutions in B.C. follow VIU’s lead,” says Turpel-Lafond. “Earlier this year, I challenged B.C.’s post-secondary institutions to waive tuition fees for children in care and I’m extremely pleased to see that Vancouver Island University has taken the lead in responding to this challenge.”

VIU President Ralph Nilson says the university’s long history of inclusivity contributed to this decision.

“We have a whole set of values at the institution that we have identified in our planning which go to the core of who we are,” Nilson tells me by phone. “We recognize importance of accessibility, support and education to create equality in society whether it’s in our Aboriginal population or people with socio-economic disadvantages.”

Nilson points out that many people living within the communities that VIU serves live below the poverty line. He also notes that 63.8% of youth in care on Vancouver Island are Aboriginal and that VIU has more Aboriginal students than any other university in the province

“I have a firm and enduring belief in the power of education to dramatically change a person’s life,” says VIU’s Chancellor Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. “It opens up opportunities, boosts confidence and of course gives people the chance to secure better, more fulfilling employment opportunities. A program such as this, where tuition is waived, is a great step forward in opening”

Nilson says that education is an important part of both individuals and communities as a whole and hopes to involve youth in care in many areas of VIU life including work study positions.

“People that work at VIU are dedicated and we as an intuition want to make sure that all members are welcome to attend not just the select few,” he says. “We recognize people coming in may not have everything they need but we can help give them everything they need to graduate on merit and that’s what we are proud of. These investments are relatively small when you think of the benefit long-term over a person’s life relative to the cost to the system if you don’t provide it. It’s very minor relative to the real cost and again, it’s so important.”

This is the Tamagawa Gardens at Malaspina University-College in 2004. This beautiful and tranquil space was built as a gift for the school by Tamagawa University in Machida, Tokyo, Japan. When I was a child I used to come up here to read, write, draw or just sit and reflect on my life and the future. I still make a point of returning to this spot whenever I visit Nanaimo.

This is the Tamagawa Gardens at Malaspina University-College in 2004. This beautiful and tranquil space was built as a gift for the school by Tamagawa University in Machida, Tokyo, Japan. When I was a child I used to come up here to read, write, draw or just sit and reflect on my life and the future. I still make a point of returning to this spot whenever I visit Nanaimo.

As a former youth in care who grew up in Nanaimo I know from first-hand experience that the VIU community has a long and laudable history with respect to the advancement of marginalized youth – especially youth in care. Many of my workers and teachers were graduates of VIU which was then known as Malaspina University-College.

When I was a teenager I attended a weekly drop-in for LGBT youth which provided a brief respite from some of the harsh realities of being a queer youth in Nanaimo at the time. It was a supportive place where I felt free to wear my favourite glittery shirts, talk openly about dating boys and really, for the first time, get to know other queer youth as well as adult volunteers. It was the first opportunity I had to speak with openly gay and lesbian adults who included social workers, child care workers, teachers, and university instructors.

Two of the volunteers – Dawn Thompson and Kym Samis – were instructors at Malaspina. They told me that my past was not a detriment but a part of a life journey that lent depth and authenticity to my interactions with this world and that I would make a very good university or college student.

Here is a note of encouragement that Dawn wrote on a card when I moved out from Nanaimo in January 2000.

Here is a note of encouragement that Dawn wrote on a card when I moved out from Nanaimo in January 2000.

I was never a student at Malaspina/VIU but I did end up going to university thanks, in part, to the support and encouragement of these two Malaspina instructors who were incredibly supportive throughout my entire academic journey. They remain a part of my life to this day.

I graduated from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario in 2005 with a bachelor of arts in Canadian Studies and from Langara College in Vancouver in 2007 with a post-graduate certificate in journalism.

The support I received from faculty, staff and students at those institutions was instrumental in my success.

Me and my awesome friend Lindsay on graduation day at Trent University in 2005.

Me and my awesome friend Lindsay on graduation day at Trent University in 2005.

Unfortunately the provincial government had cut post-secondary funding for youth from care shortly before I started university. Without any support from family I had to take out large student loans to fund my education just like most other youth from care at that time.

Student loan debt really sucks, particularly when it is owed to the same government that was supposed to be your guardian.

I am glad, however, that today’s leaders understand the importance of making post-secondary institutions accessible and affordable for youth in and from care.
This new program at VIU will allow youth from care to focus on their educational and health needs and hopefully break the cycle of poverty. I believe it will also go a long way in making VIU a more universal, well-rounded and loving community.

The pilot project called the Youth in Care Tuition Waiver Program begins in next month