Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was B.C.'s first Representative for Children and Youth, from 2006 until last year. Dr. Ralph Nilson is president of Vancouver Island University.
As Nelson Mandela famously said, education is the most powerful weapon to change the world. By creating access to education for youth in and from foster care in British Columbia, we will unlock the talents and tremendous potential of the most vulnerable young people in the province. So we applaud loudly the recent announcement by the government of B.C. to offer tuition waivers for former youth in care at all 25 public postsecondary institutions in the province.
Vancouver Island University was the first B.C. postsecondary institution to accept a challenge put forward in 2012 by the Representative for Children and Youth for tuition waivers. Since then, VIU has welcomed more than 135 former youth in care through its doors and into degree programs and skills-upgrading courses. As a result, the university has seen its student body greatly enriched.
We know tuition waivers work. By making them universal and accessible, while at the same time looking to build on other supports for these students, the B.C. government is demonstrating a firm commitment to these students and to a more equal opportunity for all young people in the province.
Efforts to sincerely address the educational gaps for these children are long overdue in the K-12 system. In fact, one of the most effective gateways into a poverty-reduction strategy is enhanced investment in education in elementary and secondary levels. Additionally, meaningful progress on early childhood development is critical so that otherwise vulnerable children and youth will not start school far behind their peers and remain that way, as we have seen has been the case in B.C. for too long. It is recognized that of the 135 students who have come through VIU alone, many of these are Indigenous youth and young adults making their way toward a brighter future, from families who have been displaced and harmed by residential schools and child-welfare systems.
There is no doubt that deep government cost-cutting and elimination of services has taken its toll on the lives of children and youth drifting through foster care in past years. We have seen and heard much about the young people who do not make it, and the struggles of those who do make it but often emerge deeply traumatized.
In so many areas, government impacts peoples' lives only at the margins, but this investment is different. It is immediate, direct and meaningful. It captures the right values at the right time. So much more is needed for all students and all families who have difficulty supporting their children's postsecondary aspirations – we recognize that. But government taking responsibility for those children entrusted to its care, for whom it was the parent, is the right thing to do.
Resilience is a word often bandied about in the area of vulnerable youth – and the meaning can be lost on many until you witness it in action, as we have in the youth from care who have taken up the opportunity of tuition waivers and undertaken a journey through advanced education. The lives of most of these young adults will never be "normal" or easy. At times, the ghosts of the past may haunt them – the bittersweet moments such as when they have their own children or grandchildren, or the many occasions when the trauma or maltreatment they experienced will be certain to rear its head. However, they will be better equipped with skills and supports to manage that burden in their lives and celebrate the accomplishment of what they have built thanks to this kind of education program. Education, at its core, is about giving people the opportunity and tools to tell their story – and with it comes the respect of a community to hear that story and learn.
We have worked together over the past five years with private-sector partners and others to get 11 of B.C.'s 25 public colleges, institutes and universities to offer some version of a tuition-waiver program. Progress was slow and, at times, piecemeal. The announcement of provincewide tuition waivers, though, is a game-changer.
For children in care entering K-12 classrooms next week for a new school year, we must make sure social workers, teachers, foster parents, caregivers, friends and advocates give them this message: There is a college, institute or university program in this province for you. British Columbians believe in your future and that you should be vulnerable to only one thing – be vulnerable to success. Dream big for your future and hang in there, because education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.