When Arisha Khan was younger, going to university seemed out of reach. Now, the McGill student is helping others who face similar challenges overcome them.

Until last year, Khan rarely told people about her struggles growing up in foster care.

“I struggled a lot when I was in school, especially my early years of high school, just because I was in a transient state of being in multiple homes in the foster care system,” she said. “I never really had mentors or adults who had faith in me to go to university. But over time I learned if I wanted to make it out of the system, education is probably what it would take and I was fortunate enough in my last year of high school to have people to push me to apply to university.”

Khan realizes that she’s an anomaly – kids in the foster system have a graduation rate that’s roughly half that of other students and only two per cent attain a university degree.  

“That’s very surprising when you look at the number of the greater population that are able to achieve these small milestones in a young adult’s life,” said Khan.

One of the biggest obstacles towards earning a diploma is money, according to Khan. She recalled working three jobs but still not being able to cover all her costs after being accepted to McGill.

Luckily, she was able to get help from the university’s financial aid office and now she’s helping them launch a pilot project called the Youth In Care bursary.

“It’s a minimum guarantee of $5,000 and we encourage students to self-identify,” said McGill’s director of scholarships and student aid Cara Piperni. “Once they’re in our door, we can figure out what their financial need is. If it’s higher than $5,000, then we can go bigger, but at least it’s a guarantee.”

Piperni said nearly one third of McGill students require some form of financial aid, but those in foster care are especially in need.

“We appreciate the fact that in this highly competitive academic environment, they’ve arrived, they’ve gotten to this place and we want them to get to the finish line,” she said.

Khan is currently almost finished her degree and is working full-time for the Student’s Society of McGill University. She’s hoping that by beating the odds, she’ll inspire others to do the same.

“I think me talking about it now may help other youth who are in high school and didn’t think they could get into a post-secondary,” she said. “I think it would have helped me to see someone in that position.”