Making the Grade, part 2: Social work student was stunned to find out she could get free tuition
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Krystal Desbiens, a fourth-year Bachelor of Social Work student at Vancouver Island University, didn’t know that as a former youth in care she could have her tuition waived a few years ago when she first applied for her two-year Social Services Diploma at Vancouver Island University.
A friend told her and she was stunned.
“No way. There’s no way someone is going to pay for me to go to school,” she said.
But it turns out it was true.
Since 2017, the British Columbia government has waived all tuition for undergraduate degrees and trades training at public post-secondary institutions for people between the ages of 19 and 26 who spent at least two years in government care.
Krystal Desbiens is working towards her Bachelor of Social Work at Vancouver Island University. Photo credit: Submitted.
About 850 young people age out of B.C. government care each year, often losing all of the supports they have come to rely on, such as their foster parents, financial support, youth health and mental health care and their social worker.
About 1,700 former youth in care have taken advantage of the program, but many are left out, either because they’re too old, didn’t spend enough time in care, or simply didn’t know about its existence.
Although she doesn’t qualify for the provincial tuition waiver, which is capped at age 26, both VIU and many other universities in B.C. have their own waiver program for former foster children of all ages.
Desbiens has a learning disability and had to do upgrading before entering the university program.
“It’s been hard. I struggled a lot in high school.”
Desbiens was placed in foster care when she was five years old, with her younger sister. An even younger sister was adopted out. Her biological mom had three kids by the time she was 21; Krystal was born when she was just 16.
“She was a baby having a baby,” Desbiens said.
The two girls went into and out of care, at times being placed back with their mother. Krystal lost count of the number of different families she lived with after the tenth home. But when she was 14, a couple took in Krystal and her sister, vowing to treat them as their own.
“I finally found a family that actually cared about me and showed that they cared about me,” she said. “It was the first time in a really long time that I had felt like that.”
Her biological mother passed away when Desbiens was 24 or 25. She lived with her last foster family until she was 21 and decided on her own to move out.
“They’re still my family to this day,” she said.
Her ultimate goal is to do veterinary social work, helping people through contact with animals.
“I want to work with animals and kids who have had severe trauma. Animals are very therapeutic,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s working part-time as a support worker for people with autism and fetal alcohol syndrome while finishing up her degree.
Desbiens says she wouldn’t be in university without the tuition waiver program.
“This is a huge help. It really allows people who are aging out of the system to have a little bit of hope for the future,” she said.
Learning should not have an age limit, student says
The one thing Desbiens would change about the tuition waiver program is to have it available for people of all ages. Learning should not have an age limit, she said.
“I think the government is doing a wonderful thing by allowing people to go to school who have aged out of the system. I’m not negating that in any way. I think it’s beautiful,” she said. “I think it should be something that every province does. I believe it’s something that there should be no age limit on though.”
Many of those interviewed for this story wish the program would be expanded, both to all ages, to people who were in care for fewer than 24 months and perhaps even to families who have had ongoing child-welfare involvement without their children being taken into care. Some would like to see graduate studies covered, and there is concern about why more young women than men use the program.
Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, says the tuition waiver program is “vitally important.”
“The state is the parent, and we have a responsibility to sustain our parental duty, much as many of us with family privilege do, we continue to be available,” Charlesworth said in an interview. “We have a duty, a moral and ethical responsibility to support these young people to adulthood.”
Charlesworth would like to see communication about the program improved and says many young people do not know about it. Others don’t know their care story and don’t realize they may be eligible, she said.
“I can’t tell you how many young people I’ve spoken with that don’t really know what their story is or if they were in care or what was going on because they were quite young,” she said.
Angell Olsen, 27, is one former youth in care who could benefit from having the age limit extended. She was taken away from her birth mom at six weeks and only met her a few times before she died when Olsen was about eight or nine years old.
“I saw her a couple of times when I was a toddler, and I saw her at my dad’s funeral and I saw her at the hospital before she died. So, I only saw her a handful of times and I was really little,” Olsen said.
She lived in the care of her dad’s sister in Quesnel until she was 18, when she moved out. She is Indigenous, from Canim Lake Nation in 100 Mile House. She now lives in Kamloops and works as a youth advisor for a non-profit organization called A Way Home Kamloops.
“I was taken in almost off the street, couch surfing — hidden homelessness we will call it. I started volunteering there and then I was hired later on,” she said.
She would like to go back to school, either to get her social work degree or to train as a community support worker.
“I’m looking at a few options. I would love to be a more Indigenous voice in the non-profit community,” she said.
It’s hard to find educational options in the evening that will work with her job schedule.
Even though she doesn’t fit the current age rules for the tuition waiver, she sees many youth in her job that have used the waiver program.
“It’s making a difference. They all seem pretty happy with their continued education,” she said.
One thing that would help more youth to access the program is easier access to identification, she said.
“Often youth moving around from couch to couch lose their clothing, lose their ID and many other personal items. It can be harder to apply for bank cards or getting into school or paying off debt when you don’t have a birth certificate, or proper ID or even an address to send.”
Chris Rambaran, UBC’s enrolment advisor for former youth in care, said expanding the program would be a positive move.
“I think they should just do away with those age limitations. Needless to say, when youth transition out of care it looks a lot different from someone who has a traditional family at their side,” Rambaran said. “It can take that much longer to get enrolled in university and figure out what you want to do.”
Another concern for Charlesworth is a gender imbalance in those accessing the program – 70 per cent of students accessing the program are female, while just 29 per cent are male, she said.
“It’s a really interesting gender imbalance that makes me wonder how we make sure that young people know or see that this is something that is possible for them.”
She would also like to see an appeal process put in place for young people who are denied tuition waiver support.
Indigenous students at UBC can access the First Nations House of Learning. Photo credit: Don Erhardt
Indigenous students are under-represented
The proportion of Indigenous students accessing the program is also much less than it should be, knowing that, due to colonialism, 65 per cent of children in care in B.C. are Indigenous, while just 5.9 per cent of the overall population is Indigenous.
Just 40 per cent of those accessing tuition waivers are Indigenous, and Charlesworth says this may reflect a “racism of low expectations” that sees Indigenous children streamed away from post-secondary education.
Advanced education minister Anne Kang says the government will continue to work to increase access to post-secondary school for Indigenous people.
“We have done a lot in a short amount of time, but there is more to do,” Kang said. “We are continuing to work with youth, partner ministries and advocacy organizations to evaluate and improve access for all British Columbians with a focus on former youth in care.”
Law student Verukah Poirier, who finished her first year in UBC’s law school in May, is Indigenous. Her grandmother is Cree from Maskwacis, and her grandfather is Metis from Saskatchewan.
During her studies at UBC, she has been involved in creating a space specifically for Indigenous students, which was one of the few places that were open for students on campus during the pandemic. She has also worked at the First Nations House of Learning on campus and this year was the Indigenous Legal Studies summer assistant at the law school, as the course assistant for a brand-new intensive class for incoming Indigenous law students.
She says the university has done a lot in the past few years to address Indigenous needs.
“I can speak to the law school, watching this year, how they adapted to the residential school findings has been amazing to see the capacity that university has to adjust when they want to adjust. That’s been really nice to see,” she said. “There is still a long way to go. … It’s far from perfect, but progress.”
Poirier hopes to work in criminal law in the future, specifically helping Indigenous people and working towards more equitable restorative justice programs.
This reporting was funded by Journalists for Human Rights and the Solutions Journalism Network and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.