Earning a Rhodes Scholarship is a singularly remarkable achievement under any circumstance. That Arisha Khan will enter Oxford in the fall of 2019 as McGill’s 145th Rhodes Scholar is near miraculous, or, as she would tell you, a serious statistical anomaly.
“I came this close to failing Grade 9, and just the thought of going to university was unfathomable,” she says.
Khan was a product – she would say survivor – of the Ontario child welfare system. Her file was opened at the age of six and she spent many of the ensuing years shuttling from one foster home to another. “There was never any permanency,” she says.
Unfortunately, Khan’s struggles at school meant she was right on track – for failure. “Statistically, about 50 per cent of kids in foster care drop out of high school in Canada, which is way below the national average,” she says. “And only two per cent go on to earn a university degree. I was right on the edge.”
For someone who loves statistics, Khan hates those numbers – and she doesn’t understand why more people don’t hate them just as much. She believes too many people just shrug their shoulders and accept that the stats represent a sad but forgone conclusion for these kids. “It’s a given that foster care kids will fail,” she says. “And when you’re a kid, you tend to believe what adults say.”
Dearth of post-secondary support
Because of these systemic low expectations, there is neither planning, nor support for those foster care children who want to go to university. “The big goal is to get us to finish high school,” says Khan, who lost access to all governmental support services when she turned 18. “After that, nothing. How many young adults are still living with their parents through university, or at least being supported in some way by family?
“I was working fulltime while I was still in high school,” she says, “and it makes me mad when people try to glamourize that. No kid should ever have to do that.”
As Kahn points out, the high dropout rate is just the tip of the iceberg. ‘System kids,’ as Kahn calls them, grow up with an increased risk of being substance abusers and of being homelessness or incarcerated.
“Why don’t people wince when they hear this?” she asks rhetorically. “Because people just assume that these outcomes are normal for system kids. No one questions why the system designed to protect children can’t even do that.”
One way Kahn protected herself was through self-advocacy. At the age of 14, she was carrying around in her backpack a copy of Ontario legislation that spelled out the rights of children in foster care. “There was one clause that said under the best interest of the child, the child has the right to be involved in decisions that affect them,” she says with a chuckle. “People thought I was weird, but I’d pull it and say ‘See? You have to listen to me.’ It was the only weapon I had.”
Navigating the system is particularly hard for children who don’t know their rights, Kahn says. Even the ones who do have an idea of their rights, don’t necessarily know how to verify them or even apply them. “Being sure of my rights was the most important thing for me.”
In so arming herself, Kahn was able to mitigate some of the serious shortcomings she witnessed while in foster care. “The system failed me,” Kahn says bluntly. “We are invisible and voiceless.”
The more she learned about the system and its flaws, the more she was inspired to try and fix it. In her own words, she was just a “quasi-adult” when she served as an adviser to the Premier of Ontario, and on the policy team responsible for reforming Ontario’s child and youth mental health system. At present, she is the Vice-President of Youth in Care Canada, a national charitable organization that supports youth in and from state care.
All the policy work taught Kahn one thing – politicians are not always very good at delivering on bold promises. “I’ve seen four ministers of Children Youth Services come and go and each one would say ‘This time I’m going to blow up the system!’ But nothing changes,” she says. “They wait until another tragedy comes up and make it a speaking point. I say, stop with the speaking points and start providing resources and support.”
Instead, Kahn admires – and allies herself with – the people working in behind the scenes. “The bureaucrats have been the biggest mentors in my life,” she says “The people I really admire are the public servants who are there, day in and day out, through changing governments, committed to changing the system.”
A huge part of that change has to be in terms of financial support. In Kahn’s eyes, consistent, ongoing financial support is one of the biggest issues facing people coming from the child welfare system. “You shouldn’t be living in the constant precarity that leads to all these outcomes that people associate with being in foster care – homelessness, being in the justice system, substance abuse issues, not finishing high school.”
Ambitious support programs in the U.S. – notably in California – boast hugely successful graduation rates among foster care children in high school and university. And while Kahn says Canada lags far behind, there are signs that the situation is slowly changing.
In British Columbia, Kahn notes, a relatively new initiative gives young people leaving foster care access to free tuition at all 25 of the province’s public post-secondary institutions.
At McGill, Khan was instrumental in the establishment of the endowed Youth in Care Bursary which offers a minimum of $5,000 to help current and former foster youth pursue a McGill undergraduate degree.
“I had heard in the U.S. they not only had full rides but also targeted support programs for foster youth. I wrote a 50-page report about these programs that had post-secondary graduating rates of 90 per cent,” she says. “Here in Canada, the number is around two per cent. We need to use these American programs as a template for what can be done here.”
In her final year at McGill in Comparative Social Policy, Kahn is taking a combination of courses on policy, public health, social work and economics. At Oxford, she will continue along this path and pursue her doctoral studies in evidence-based policy intervention and policy evaluation.
Like the bureaucrats and public servants she so admires, Kahn would prefer to do most of her work behind the scenes. But, as probably the first system kid to earn a Rhodes Scholarship, she also understands that she has been given a platform and a rare opportunity. “The Rhodes people are saying that they believe system kids can be successful,” says Kahn. “It starts a conversation about needing to support young people and about the things they can accomplish when they are supported.”
“It is both a privilege and a huge responsibility,” she says. “I used to just speak about policy and data because people are more comfortable with statistics and cold facts. Now I feel like I have an obligation to also talk about my personal experience because, even if it makes people uncomfortable, they need to hear it too.”