Content warning: This article contains mention of mental illness, rape, sexual assault, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I remember the day I received my acceptance letter from St. Thomas University. I didn’t apply anywhere else, despite receiving advice from mentors to not “put all my eggs in one basket.” But there was nowhere else I wanted to go.
My career goal was to become a criminal lawyer and help people. When I found the criminology department, the human rights department and the moot court program at STU, I believed they were a combination that was second to none in the country. So when I received my acceptance letter, it was the best day of my life.
I remember fighting for the opportunity to attend STU. I had been in foster care in Newfoundland for nearly four years and the provincial government was willing to pay my tuition and living expenses. Before entering the system, I never dreamed I could afford to attend university. One of my biological parents was on welfare and the other was just over the poverty threshold. I was often told I should join the military instead.
Based on provincial policy, youth in care are required to attend the closest institution to their hometown to attend the program they desire and the Newfoundland government will pay for their expenses until their 21st birthday. The closest university to me was Memorial University in St. John’s. I wanted to study criminology and human rights for four years. MUN offered a one-year criminology certificate and no human rights classes. The closest school that offered these programs was two provinces away. I sent a list of reasons why I should attend “the small university of big opportunities” in New Brunswick to the minister of social development. A counsellor provided a letter to the minister, stating that attending MUN would be damaging to my mental health and my career. The minister agreed to let me attend STU.
University was a hard adjustment. While I had technically moved out at 14, I was lucky to be placed in a good home with good people. It was only supposed to be for two months, but those two months turned into 2,560 days — that’s seven years and five days.
Moving to university was the easy part; it was the stigmatization that was hard.
I was so afraid of judgement that I called my foster parents my “grandparents.” It was easier to explain away than to take the pity that people often gave me. In my opinion, pity is one of the worst things one person can give another.
I would say that I was attending STU with a “sponsorship” from my provincial government. One time I said that, a member from the STU debate society told me that if the Newfoundland government spent less money sponsoring me, perhaps they could avoid bankruptcy. I cried in the back of a rental car on the way home from a tournament that day. I never dared to tell that person how my education was actually being funded.
In second year, I moved into an apartment with two good friends, one of whom knew my story. I could count on one hand how many people I felt safe to tell. I did not tell my story to my other roommate until a few days after moving in with them. They had a huge problem with it and argued that I should have told them about it before moving in with them. They later apologized for their actions, and we are still good friends to this day. But, it shows how people act entitled and think that former youth in care owe them their story.
In the two years I lived with these roommates, we received three eviction notices, all of which were my fault. While the Newfoundland government agreed to pay for my living expenses when I switched from residence to an apartment, their payments would not come by the time rent was due. Any fees that came from late rent payments came out of my pocket. Sometimes they did not pay me because the contract we signed would be up for renewal, and after renewing, the financial worker would forget to request new funding for my basic needs. Although my food expenses were paid for, I once went to the food bank four times in the span of one month.
While this was going on, my biological parents reached out asking for money. This would happen every few months while I was in university, but they never called for any other reason. I would always get panic attacks when my biological father would text me because I knew he would ask for money and not bother to ask for an update about my life.
I can’t count the number of times I wanted to drop out of university, defer for a year or even a semester. No matter how many times I wanted to defer, I was never able to afford it. My social workers would tell me that they would cut me off immediately, instead of waiting for my 21st birthday. One of the times that I wanted to defer was the fall semester of second year.
Two of my childhood friends died in a car accident on the way home from visiting their biological family. These girls were special to me because we knew each other before and after entering the foster care system. Our biological parents were friends and I often babysat the youngest girl. They went into foster care in the same small hamlet as me, just a few months before I was placed in the system. Their new home was right down the road from mine. Once a month, we went home to visit our families. They died as their grandfather drove them to a halfway point to meet their foster mother.
For months, I was a wreck and I had all these thoughts and questions in my head.
“My father has driven me on that same road to the same halfway point for years, why did they die and not me?” “Am I more special than them?” “Do I have a higher purpose?”
It took a long time for me to come to peace with what happened. One day, I plan to create a scholarship for former youth in care and name it after those girls in their honour. I told myself I would “keep fighting the good fight,” so that foster children could be more visible and valued in society.
Another time I wanted to defer from university was after being raped by a classmate in my apartment, under the guise of helping me with schoolwork. From that experience, I developed post-traumatic stress disorder and was cripplingly depressed and suicidal. I was in that state for months over a summer. Once the next school term began, I started feeling purpose again. I always throw myself into my schoolwork when bad things happen. It is easy to disassociate and it protects me from further harm. Therapists tell me this is a coping mechanism I use to escape my unsafe reality. I was not able to dive into escapism with my studies for long.
Shortly after the term began, my foster father died from COVID-19 in the intensive care unit. He had a heart attack a year before and surgery the following year in 2021. Due to his open-heart surgery, he was unable to get vaccinated and had to rely on others to protect him. My foster father was my biggest supporter — watching me attend university was a huge milestone.
I am not only a first-generation university student, but I am the first foster child from my community to attend university. One social worker used to call me the region’s “miracle case.” I was considered a pioneer, paving the way for former youth in care to attend post-secondary education. After my foster father died, I went home to check on my foster mother and sisters, as they all survived COVID-19. My mental and physical health were low, leading to a concussion. I had missed about a month of school altogether. I wanted nothing more than to defer from university so I could recover and re-centre myself. Unfortunately, I was unable to leave my studies because I could not afford another semester of tuition and fees.
Finances are a huge barrier for former youth in care to climb the social mobility ladder. Institutions across the country are attempting to bridge that gap by providing a certain number of tuition waivers to former youth in care, so they can have the same opportunities as other post-secondary students. No universities in New Brunswick, including STU, have signed on to provide these tuition waivers.
Children and youth in care are more susceptible to physical health issues, mental illness and suicide. This is not discussed enough in open spaces.
Across Canada, former youth from child welfare systems are at risk for so many adversities like unemployment, addiction and homelessness. I once bought a car during my time at STU so I would have shelter if I ever ended up homeless. Once my 20th birthday came, all I could think about was what I’d do if I could not afford a place to live, even with a student loan. Turning 21 meant I would no longer have any form of support from my government and I would truly be on my own. Unlike some students who can go to their parents for support or go home in their time of need, former youth in care do not have that option. I had people tell me they would be embarrassed to finish their degree only to move home with their parents. To those people, I say they’re lucky to have that backup plan.
I often say former youth in care are an “invisible minority.” We do not have our own checkbox in student surveys and our community does not have an association dedicated to amplifying our voices. Many of us do not share our stories for fear of harm or further abuse, judgement, stigmatization or discrimination. Although you cannot see who we are, we are ordinary people living among you. Some children and youth from the child welfare system have more privilege than others. We all have different backgrounds, come from different socioeconomic classes and have different abilities. Children that enter the foster care system are disproportionately Indigenous, which displays the racist and discriminatory roots within the development of the child welfare system. I once heard a fellow student say that it is not right to “assume” someone has privilege. I disagreed and I believe privilege is measured on a scale rather than a switch of “privilege or no privilege.” I firmly believe discussing privilege is important and it helps us determine where we have bias “blind spots” or things we need to learn or unlearn.
Navigating university as a low-income, first-generation student from the child welfare system has been a unique experience for me. I often felt the privilege of other students and then felt like an outsider. Having imposter syndrome throughout this experience is normal for me. STU prides itself on its close-knit community, but I never felt like I was part of that community or any sub-community. I do not fit into any category that holds space for students at STU because my category has never been added to any list. Platforms that amplify voices from former youth in care do not exist here.
My career goal has changed since coming to STU. I once wanted to be a criminal lawyer, but decided I want to pursue evidence-based policy so the welfare systems across Canada run on policy recommended by authentic voices with lived experience. I have spent the majority of my time at STU trying to advocate for the little voices that need amplifying.
For STU’s administration, I hope this story provides motivation and drive to advocate for preliminary initiatives that can bridge the gap for former youth in care, so they can begin climbing that social mobility ladder. I hope this story demonstrates to current and future students that our “invisible minority” deserves a place in the STU community. Overall, I hope this story inspires former youth in care who feel guilty or ashamed of their story when they should be proud.
Students can access sexual violence resources at stu.ca/sexualviolencesupport
Sexual Violence New Brunswick Hotline: 506-454-0437
CHIMO Hotline: 506-453-2132 (mental health crises and suicide hotline)
Programs for Former Youth in Care: Partners for Youth Organization
Partners for Youth Connect (free public or private therapy for ages 14-24): https://www.partnersforyouth.ca/en/pfy-connect/
Home Based Fund (funding for continued care youth ages 16-26)
Partnered with the Children’s Aid Society of Ontario to provide housing related needs to youth leaving care and transitioning to independent living.
Telus Mobility for Good Program, Free Internet Program: https://www.telus.com/en/social-impact/connecting-canada/youth/application#I4G
Free Cell Phone and Plan Program: https://www.telus.com/en/social-impact/connecting-canada/youth/application#M4G
Provincial tuition waivers offered by institutions across the country for former youth in care: https://www.childwelfarepac.com/_files/ugd/6548f4_3f4f445387ff42d38bdd07449fb68064.pdf