Taking the Rhodes less travelled

Arisha Khan defies the odds to become McGill’s 145th Rhodes Scholar

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 the thought of going to university was unfathomable,” she says.

From the age of six, Khan bounced in and out of the child welfare system. “There was never any permanency,” she says.

Arisha Khan, McGill’s 145th Rhodes Scholar, will begin her studies at Oxford in the fall of 2019.Alison Gu

Unfortunately, Khan’s struggles in 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 higher than 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 youths. “It’s a given that foster care kids will fail,” she says. “And when you’re a child, 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 full time 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 Khan points out, the high dropout rate is just the tip of the iceberg. ‘System kids,’ as Khan calls them, grow up with an increased risk of being substance abusers and of being homeless 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.”

Backpack advocate

One way Khan protected herself was through self-advocacy. At the age of 14, she was carrying around in her backpack a copy of the Ontario child welfare 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, Khan says. Even the ones who do have an idea of their rights, don’t necessarily know how to verify them or even exercise them. “Being sure of my rights was the most important thing for me.”

In so arming herself, Khan was able to mitigate some of the serious shortcomings she witnessed while in foster care. “The system failed me,” Khan says bluntly. “It’s easy to feel voiceless when trying to enforce your own rights – that’s why we need an advocate for children and youth in the system.

Making a difference behind the scenes

The more she learned about the system and its flaws, the more she was inspired to try and fix it.

Her first foray into policy advocacy began in 2013, when she was a driving force behind the creation of youth seats on the Board of Directors of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) – her legal “parent” in Ontario. At the same time, she served as the youngest CAS Board member for the province.

From there, Khan was appointed to serve as an Advisor to the Ontario Premier. It was an appointment she took very seriously.

Over the next three years Khan reviewed  every government program for youths, while also conducting community consultations – including visiting youths in detention facilities – to ensure that provincial policies reflected the realities of Ontario youth in care. “From this moment on, I began to see myself as somebody who could draw from their personal struggles to improve institutions as a public servant,” she says.

Currently, Khan serves as Vice-President of Youth In Care Canada, a national charity that supports current and former foster youth and facilitates community-engaged policy advocacy. She is leading the review of Canada’s national child welfare compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and organizing the 2020 International Foster Care Organization conference.

All the policy work has taught Khan 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, Khan admires – and allies herself with – the people working 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.”

Financial support is key

A huge part of that change has to be in terms of financial support. In Khan’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 Khan says Canada lags far behind, there are signs that the situation is slowly changing.

In British Columbia, Khan 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 permanently 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.”

Outside the comfort zone

In her final year at McGill in Comparative Social Policy, Khan 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. “My experiences have taught me that for impact, legislation and policy must be coupled with practice that is rooted in both evidence and consultation,” she says. “My research at Oxford will examine protocols for the early detection of and intervention in child abuse cases, particularly through collaboration between child protection and health services.”

Like the bureaucrats and public servants she so admires, Khan 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. “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.”

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