As Levon Beck begins her second year of college, she says it's hard to put her gratitude for free tuition into words.
"I don't even know how to describe it. It takes off a lot of stress, takes off a lot of worry," Beck, who is studying business administration at the Nova Scotia Community College, said Tuesday.
Last fall, Beck applied for what's called post-care free tuition through 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.
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. She finds that income isn't enough for both living expenses and tuition in the Halifax area.
This program has changed that.
"It enables me to do my studies and get closer to my dream goal … it's an incredible program," Beck said.
The program was first introduced at Mount Saint Vincent University in 2020, and has since been adopted by NSCC, Dalhousie University, the University of King's College and Saint Mary's University.
Now, more than a year after the program launched, a researcher at MSVU is conducting research on how tuition waivers benefit people who were once in care.
Jacquie Gahagan worked to implement the tuition-waiver program at Dalhousie and King's before joining MSVU as associate vice-president.
Gahagan, who uses they/them pronouns, said about 50 per cent of people with experience in the child welfare system don't finish high school, "which really doesn't set them up to get into many, if any, post-secondary institutions."
They want to change that.
Through funding from Research Nova Scotia, Gahagan launched the first part of the study in the spring, which interviewed recipients about the waiver.
"It was really helpful for us for, the team to hear perspectives from those who are in tuition-waiver programs and really the excitement about the possibility is what we heard as a key theme," Gahagan told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia.
"So in other words, if not for the tuition waiver program, there's absolutely no chance that they would be able to explore post-secondary education. Some very powerful stories."
Gahagan said the interviews revealed that the applicants needed to know they're "not going it alone" and will have continued support from the program.
"This population in particular, what we're hearing is, 'I can't believe that this opportunity happened. I never thought I would have this opportunity,' So it wasn't even on their radar," Gahagan said.
They added that some people also expressed concerns about missing out on the tuition waiver program, due to lack of information or difficulties verifying child welfare records, especially if their care was outside of Nova Scotia.
"Those are concerns that we're looking at…. I think we need to do a little bit more to make that easier for individuals to work their way through those processes," Gahagan said.
Gahagan said these responses will guide a larger, three-year study on the way tuition-waiver programs affect the lives of recipients and how they can improve equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility at post-secondary institutions.
Once the three-year study is complete, the research will be brought back to the institutions that provide the waivers.
Gahagan said one area the research will examine is the benefit or disadvantage of assigning a mentor or caseworker to the students, using a trauma-informed approach.
Some students were reluctant to have a caseworker based on previous experience.
"You can appreciate there's some individuals who simply don't want to be retelling their story over and over and over again. They just want to get on with their lives," Gahagan said.
"So we have to kind of figure out what is the balance between, 'How do we support individuals in a way that is meaningful and useful to them?' Rather than imposing what might be seen as sort of more normative support some individuals simply don't want."
Funded by the federal government's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Gahagan said the new research is getting underway this fall.
Meanwhile, Beck said she's grateful to the program, and encourages others who used to be in the child welfare system to apply, even if they're hesitant.
"I doubted myself a lot because of past experiences and stuff, so if they're doubting themselves, try it because [then] you're not standing in your way. You're giving it your all and I think that's the most important," she said.
"Like if something stands in the way, it's not you. I find like we can be our own worst enemies most of the time and I think, also, a lot of times we've been let down by so many different people and it's learning to trust ourselves and trust other people to be able to achieve what we want to achieve."
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