A former youth in care who graduated from university this week says she hopes to use her lived experience to help change the child welfare system from the inside.
Jessie-Lynn Cross of the Baie Verte Peninsula grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador's foster-care system.
On Tuesday, she received a bachelor of arts degree in criminology and criminal justice, and human rights, from St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. She plans to continue her post-secondary studies, with the goal of becoming a lawyer and/or policy maker so she can change policies that affect children and youth in care.
Cross said one of the changes would be to normalize higher education for former foster-care children, pointing to statistics that suggest fewer than three per cent of young adults who grow up in foster care will go on to earn a post-secondary degree or diploma, compared with 28 per cent of the general population.
"Just because we're from care doesn't mean that we're any less valuable in society, and we deserve to have the same opportunities as everybody else," said Cross.
Didn't do it alone
Graduation is often an emotional time for students and their families, but Cross said the completion of her degree has probably brought on more tears of joy than most.
"I honestly cannot stop crying," said Cross. "And I just keep thinking of how grateful I am for all the hard work that I've done to get here."
But Cross is quick to say that she didn't get to the end of her post-secondary studies on her own, and she lists off a "village" of people who've helped, including her foster family, friends, partner, social workers and the Children's Aid Foundation of Canada.
"Without those people, I would not be finishing my degree," she said.
As a youth in care, after high school graduation, Cross has received funding from the provincial government each year to cover the majority of the cost of her post-secondary education, a benefit for which Cross is very appreciative.
Cross said she had to lobby hard and advocate for herself in order to receive approval from the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development to attend a university outside Newfoundland and Labrador where her specific degree was offered.
But she said she doesn't consider herself lucky, as some have told her she is, because she said the extra financial help has simply levelled the playing field with students who have families to support them as they go to college or university.
"I'm not lucky. I'm equal to everyone else," said Cross.
Cross said the fact that her story is so unique causes her sadness even while she celebrates her own success.
As a youth growing up on the Baie Verte Peninsula, her academic achievement in school and her aspirations to pursue a university education made her stand out among kids in care, as no other foster child from her area had gone on to university, at least not in recent memory.
"I was often referred to as 'the miracle case' by social workers," said Cross. "It just creates a lot of pressure that I don't think any kid really needs, especially in my circumstances."
Cross said she's met many youth in care over the years who don't believe their future can be bright, just because they're foster children.
She hopes those young people will be inspired by the fact that someone with a story similar to their own has set a goal and been successful.
"I really hope that it makes kids in the system change their minds about their own selves, and that it makes them think that they, too, deserve an education," said Cross.
Caring to change
She said her next goal is to pursue a master's degree in public policy and possibly later become a lawyer, something to which she's aspired since she was a 14-year-old girl.
Whatever she ends up doing, Cross said she will remember where she's come from and will strive to improve circumstances for children and youth whose stories are similar to hers.
"There's not enough people in politics or in law that are actually from the system and know what these kids need," said Cross. "You need those first-hand voices saying, 'You know what, this policy isn't correct. It's not right, and it's not going to be effective because it's not what these kids need.'"
Not an easy path
Cross said she'd be remiss not to mention the many challenges she faced throughout her four-year degree, including ones that are common to university students, such as juggling school work and part-time jobs to ensure bills were paid on time.
But she said she also suffered from imposter syndrome, as she sometimes questioned whether she even belonged in a post-secondary classroom alongside people from more privileged backgrounds.
"I hid my identity as a foster kid for over a year, because I was scared of the stigmatization that it would bring," said Cross.
A tragic blow came just months before her convocation as her longtime foster father died of COVID-19 over Thanksgiving weekend in October.
"It was soul-crushing, because he really wanted to see me graduate," said Cross. "I just kept thinking of him, and I thought, 'I have to do this for him. I have to do this for my family.'"
Even though they're not her biological family, she said, she's pleased to know that she's a source of pride for them as she received her degree this past week.
"They can say, 'That was our daughter who did that,'" said Cross.