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Creating paths to success for youth in care

A $1-million gift from McGill alumna and volunteer Martine Turcotte will establish a full-ticket bursary and support program at McGill for students from Quebec’s youth in care system

Library walkway in the summer

Imagine for a minute the roadblocks in front of youth in foster care who navigate traumatic childhoods and dream of going to university. 

“This is a group of young people who are not supported in their education,” says Nico Trocmé, Director of McGill’s School of Social Work. “The state intervenes in their lives and takes responsibility for them as children and young adults, and then leaves them adrift. It’s an enormous problem,” right across North America, he says.

Which is why Trocmé is ecstatic about a full-ticket bursary and support program being developed at McGill for students from Quebec’s youth in care system. The new initiative is made possible thanks to a generous $1-million gift to the University from McGill Law alumna Martine Turcotte, BCL’82, LLB’83.

“I was lucky in life because I had great parents who believed in education,” says Turcotte, a long-time McGill volunteer who served 10 years on the University’s Board of Governors. 

“I always felt badly for kids from the youth protection system,” she adds. “There are some kids who have not had the chance I had in life through no fault of their own. They don’t have parents who are there for them.”

Turcotte welcomes the holistic approach planned for the new bursary program. “It's more than just giving money to the student,” she says. “It’s about creating an environment to ensure their success.”

In addition to the new student award that bears her name, the Martine Turcotte Youth in Care Mentorship and Support Program will provide a structured system of support for the recipients.

“It’s such a visionary, ground-breaking initiative,” says Delphine Collin-Vézina, Director of the Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF) at the School of Social Work. “And to have a funder who has this vision and who is allowing us to make it possible is really beyond words to me. I know that it's going to make a difference for many young people.”

Nurturing environment for bursary recipients

The Centre comprises about 40 researchers, many of whom research the child protection system. They also act as “knowledge brokers,” working with partners to identify questions that will guide their child welfare services and practices, and finding answers through research, Collin-Vézina says. 

The Centre will oversee the mentoring of Martine Turcotte Bursary recipients, regardless of the faculty they enrol in. Graduate students from the School (who may have been in care themselves as youths) will be matched with recipients to mentor them.

“We hope that CRCF, in collaboration with other McGill services, can become more like a social hub” for the bursary recipients, Collin-Vézina says.

Students will also benefit from experiential learning opportunities in each of their three summers at McGill – paid research assistantship positions funded through Turcotte’s gift. The Centre will help students connect with professors in their faculty and field of study to secure the research jobs. 

“We hope that it really builds their skills, their sense of belonging and their dreams for their own future,” says Collin-Vézina. 

One of the goals of the support program is to support bursary recipients through the student lifecycle and beyond into their careers, says Martine Gauthier, Executive Director, Student Services.

“This is the first really articulated support system that goes from recruitment to support and retention to graduation and career focus,” Gauthier says. Once the program is developed and evaluated, Student Services will look at replicating it for other underrepresented groups.  

The gift includes funding for an advisor-coach type position to help bursary recipients navigate university life – “so students don’t have to go to 10 different places,” Gauthier says. “They have one person they can turn to, and this person will triage them to the support that they need,” such as a Local Wellness Advisor at McGill.

‘A very rough start in life’

Outreach and recruitment represent the other key piece of the funding.

“These children face many different challenges,” Collin-Vézina says. “If they're in care, they are likely to have experienced child abuse and neglect and other family difficulties such as parents having mental health issues or substance abuse problems. It's a very rough start in a life where you don't have necessarily all the learning opportunities at a very young age to develop your full capacity.”

She mentioned a ground-breaking study of kids in Quebec’s youth protection system by Martin Goyette, a researcher at l’École nationale d’administration publique. Among the disconcerting findings published in La Presse in 2018: only 17 per cent of the 17-year-olds had reached the appropriate level of schooling (Grade 11) for their age. Twenty-seven per cent aspired to go to university.

Recruiting students won’t be easy – it’s not a matter of just putting up a link about the bursary program on McGill’s website, Trocmé says. “They have to know that it's possible. They have to know that the supports are in place.” 

Trocmé is pleased that Collin-Vézina and the CRCF are involved in the new bursary program because of their familiarity with the child welfare system. They’ll know the staff at Batshaw Youth and Family Centres and other child welfare agencies in Quebec who can help identify promising youth in care who could be recruited into the program, he says.

McGill already has a youth in care bursary guarantee program that covers $5,000 per student annually or the value of tuition, whichever is higher. McGill will magnify the value of Turcotte’s gift by contributing this amount to the full-ticket bursary, explains Cara Piperni, Director of Scholarships & Student Aid. 

The gift allows for five recipients who will be supported in every year of full-time study. “It's a long-term commitment with the confidence that their financial plan will get them to the finish line,” Piperni says. The bursaries are scheduled to start being awarded in 2024 (potentially sooner if there are qualified candidates).

Every child that succeeds contributes to society, says Turcotte, who hopes other donors support the program and that students step up to become mentors. 

Turcotte enjoyed a successful, high-powered career at Bell, where she worked for 31 years and was the first woman appointed Chief Legal Officer in the company’s history. She retired from her position as Vice-Chair, Québec in 2020.

Turcotte considers education “the best legacy that you can give someone” and says she went to McGill to perfect her English, starting her Law studies at 17. She laughs recalling a first-semester property law course where she learned about lease obligations while still too young to sign a lease herself. 

Her first year was tough, but her parents encouraged her to stick with it.

“At least I had that parental support on my side,” Turcotte says. “That's what I mean...You need an ecosystem that's there to support you.”

Martine Turcotte

Martine Turcotte