Hope after heartache
New tuition grants open doors for young people who’ve been in the care of child and family services
Ariel Presma has a confession. She once snuck inside a lecture hall and sat in on a psychology class she wasn’t registered for.
She had only been on campus for a couple of months and was curious what the professor was talking about.
“It’s kind of interesting…knowing that behind each mysterious door, there is something new to learn,” says the 18-year-old, sitting in a study carrel in her usual Machray Hall hangout. “This place is great.”
Enrolled in three first-year courses and an aspiring food scientist, Presma speaks enthusiastically about the intricacies of jellies and the magic of yeast.
“Cheese is also very interesting,” she notes.
Presma didn’t always think she’d make it to university. She is one of 14 students who have received a Youth-in-Care tuition grant to study at the U of M. Created in 2014, the grants are funded by the University and private donors to support young people who have been—or who still are—in the care of Child and Family Services, and who can’t afford to pursue post-secondary education.
Presma’s childhood was tough. She’d hear gunshots or booze-fuelled brawls outside her North End apartment. Her family lived off social assistance and her meals came from food banks. Her mom dropped out of high school in Grade 11, her brother by Grade 10.
Presma says she grew up in an unloving home. Her only steady support came in the form of pets: the neighbourhood cats she took in and her German shepherd, Shadow. She says she also turned to her stuffed animals. Simba from the Lion King and a pink rabbit she named Roberto Benigni (after the Italian director) became her confidants.
“They were just always there,” she says.
Presma’s vivid imagination allowed her to escape to the magical lands she created in her head—but it also made her a target for schoolyard bullies. She called herself Super Girl and would pretend she had special powers that could save the school. “They thought it was weird,” Presma says. “They didn’t really get my imagination.”
She remembers wanting to take her own life as far back as Grade 3.
“That’s when bullying really started to come about,” she says. “During recess, I’d keep trying to sneak back in and hide in the bathroom. I didn’t want to be around the other kids.”
She lived with a feeling of helplessness—at school and at home. It wasn’t until age 13 that everything came to a head and she was placed into the care of Child and Family Services. She moved in with her half-sister, Shalla Dorey, who has been her foster parent ever since. Presma calls her “Smother.”
“Because she smothers me with affection,” she jokes.
It was Dorey who nurtured Presma’s love of food science. The two cook up exotic dishes together, mixing flavours from one of their three spice cabinets.
The new bursary program will help Presma transform this passion into a career. Students receive up to $5,000 annually for a maximum of four years. The fund will support up to 10 students each year.
Dorey says she’s proud of her little sister for persevering through the challenges of first-year university. She has high hopes for Presma, who is 20 years her junior.
“I hope that, like most human beings, she learns to forgive herself when she stumbles, which is always hard,” Dorey says.
“I sincerely hope that she finds great joy in her second year and third year and fourth year, that it becomes the experience she’s hoping it will be and the opportunities she’s seeking post-university manifest whether here in Manitoba or abroad. I hope she just takes [her success] and runs with it and doesn’t look back.”
By creating grants instead of tuition waivers—as is typically done at other universities—recipients can use surpluses for other expenses. The Province of Manitoba and Child and Family Services offers additional funding for living expenses, including housing, laptop computers, textbooks and meal plans.
Recipients will also have access to mentorship programs and tutoring to help them stay in university and succeed.
Manitoba has among the highest rates of children in care in the country. In 2014, more than 10,000 kids were in the Manitoba Child Welfare System, according to the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. The majority of them—87 per cent— are Indigenous.
Fewer than 10 per cent of permanent wards of the system finish high school. And a mere 5 per cent— go on to college or university, says a report by the Office of the Children’s Advocate.
Statistics show the factors that lead to a child going into care—like neglect, abuse and parental addictions—are associated with poorer educational outcomes. They also suggest that young people coming out of foster care at age 18 tend to fare poorly as adults: dropping out of school, becoming parents too early, relying on social assistance, and failing to establish a stable home of their own.
Presma is trying to beat the odds. She remembers well what it’s like to feel “distant and disconnected.”
Now, she wants to see if there is an improv group on campus she could join. Or maybe a club that enjoys the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
Presma doesn’t mince words: she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the $5,000 grant.
“It’s worth a lot more to me than $5,000 because it provides me with opportunity. It provides me with a chance to be more than I would have been.