Elias Galindo was walking down Spring Garden Road around sunset last November with a fellow international student from Mexico when a vanload of young men started following them.
It was the day after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, largely on promises to wall off his country’s southern neighbour, clamp down on Mexican immigrants, and stop American jobs from moving south.
Galindo, who has an olive complexion, said the woman he was walking with “has really dark skin.” While he’s not sure if that’s why they were singled-out, he suspects they were racially profiled by a group of “red-necks” emboldened by Trump’s election win.
There were lots of people walking downtown as the van’s occupants hurled abuse, said the first year social anthropology student at Dalhousie University.
“They were honking and they were, like, ‘Fuck you,’ and ‘Get out of here,’” Galindo said of the men in the van.
“They were chasing us and insulting us.”
At one point, a second load of young men in another van showed up and began doing the same thing. One of the vans stopped in the middle of a crosswalk so the two Mexican students couldn’t pass.
“It was a really awful day for us,” Galindo said.
He doesn’t have any idea whether the men in the vans knew he and his friend are Mexican.
“That’s the weird part,” he said. “We were feeling really paranoid at that time because how could they know we were from anywhere?”
Galindo and his friend kept walking, eventually turning down South Park Street. One of the vans gave chase, with the men inside lobbing insults at a group of nearby construction workers.
“They were insulting everyone that does not look like white people,” he said.
“We were really scared.”
The chase went on for about three blocks.
It ended when Galindo and his friend dodged into his apartment building near the downtown core.
That’s the only time he’s tasted racism first-hand in Nova Scotia since arriving here last fall. “We were wondering if that kind of experience was common.”
Professors and friends assured Galindo that sort of behaviour isn’t the norm here.
Claire Linette Seremba, a student from Uganda earning her masters in international development studies at Dal, hasn’t experienced that same kind of overt racism here.
But when she started looking for a place to live in Halifax, Seremba fielded questions at “every apartment building” she visited about why her English is so good. Uganda is a former British colony; the country’s official languages are English and Swahili.
“When they asked me ‘How come you speak such good English?’ I was sort of insulted,” Seremba said. “I talk a lot at certain times. So I gave them a very good download (about) where Uganda is … who we are and the 17 different tribes that are there.”
When she first came here, Seremba only spotted one other black person on Spring Garden Road.
“Everyone else was white and my mom was like, ‘Are you sure you’re going to live here? Because it’s like there are no black people here.’ That was her fear for me. And that’s an everyday fear. And then we found this one person who was Kenyan and who was actually the only person who realized we were lost and helped us.”
Things are different on campus, where the veil of racism “is slowly and fully removed,” she said.
“When you step out past University Avenue it’s a different thing, true. But you must learn to have your own lens of how people are. That is just mere sure ignorance. If someone does not know you, they don’t know where you come from, cut them a little bit of slack and educate them.”
Adjusting to life in Nova Scotia can be difficult for international students.
“There are so many little details that no one really cares about,” said Kayleen Ick, a masters student from Belize studying marine management at Dal.
“You notice all these differences and, yes, everything can be stressful and overwhelming. And you have all these emotions and feelings. Then you settle in and you just begin to assimilate and adjust.”
Moving here is only half the battle. For Ick, who was born in Belize and grew up in subtropical Jamaica, adapting to Nova Scotia’s weather was difficult.
“We have two seasons. Do you know what they are? Wet and dry,” she said.
“That’s all I knew. When I came here, it was beautiful and green. It turned, I enjoyed fall, and then winter came and knocked me on my butt. And never had I considered before that I would miss the sun so much.”
On bright winter days, she’s often tempted to go outside. “It is so deceptive,” Ick said. “The wind just blows me and I feel like I get hypothermia every time I walk.”
The culture of buying organic food at farmers’ markets was also confusing.
“Where I’m from, that’s the normal way,” she said. “There are vegetable shops (at home) that I can walk to and that is how people get their vegetables and produce. I don’t need to go to a huge supermarket. Those don’t exist in Belize.”
Shopping for all your groceries at once at massive stores was “mind-boggling,” Ick said.
“It was convenient, but yet it showed a difference between where I was from and what I was used to.”
The culture shock of landing in Nova Scotia can lead to depression and homesickness, she said.
“On the flip side, when you return home there’s the idea of reverse culture shock. You’ve come here, you’ve changed and adapted. And when you go back home, you have changed so much … you’ve turned into, virtually, a different person.”
When Ick first came to Halifax, she was excited about decorating her own room. But then she started to question why she was here and depression crept over her.
“You just feel like you’re alone or you’re not adjusting well,” she said.
“You just end up crying a lot.”
To counter that, Ick said she had to come up with activities to keep herself occupied outside of the time she devotes to her studies.
“You try to stimulate your mind,” she said. “So I took up embroidery again, and I read and I go for walks by myself because that’s what I like to do. Being active – these small little things help you adjust.”
Making and keeping friends is important, she said. “When you’re away from family, who else do you have?”
The public expression in Halifax of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, “and love in general,” excited Chun Hoe when he first arrived in Nova Scotia from Malaysia.
“Here’s a little bit of background about Malaysia,” said Hoe, a first year management student at Dal who also goes by the name Cross Heartson.
“We are a Muslim country and some of it can be a little bit extreme when it comes to that side of LGBT. Sometimes we do not want to recognize it and we want to, in a way, ban it entirely.”
Back home, gay jokes are socially acceptable, he said. “When I first arrived here, I really appreciated (how that wasn’t the case in Nova Scotia) and what I really loved was how liberal you guys are.”
For Seremba, the international development student, her first shock was crossing the street in Halifax.
“I came with my mom because I’d never been out of East Africa before,” she said.
The mother and daughter caused a bit of a traffic jam near the Lord Nelson Hotel when they tried to cross the street.
“Back home, there are no lights, crosswalks, there are hardly any pavements,” Seremba said. “So you walk with the cars, pretty much. You figure it out, though. Try not to get knocked by everyone’s side mirror. People see you; they just don’t care.”
Back to Halifax, where Seremba and her mother were trying to cross Spring Garden Road to get a burger.
“We had no idea that you had to wait for the light to go,” she said. “So we didn’t even notice the lights. And we were like, ‘OK, how do we cross?’ We were there for, like, five minutes before we figured out all the cars were stopping for us to cross.”
Seremba’s family runs a catering company in Uganda.
“We’ve always had the big house and we’ve always had the family over every single Sunday,” she said. “I’ve always been around food and I’ve always been around my mom cooking food. So when I miss home I make a dish my mom always makes at home.”
When Seremba moved to Halifax, she packed all the warm clothes she could and some books. “I just didn’t pack any local food.”
Now she prepares traditional Ugandan fare when she’s missing home. “It just, somehow, calms me down.”
Food is also homesickness salve for Salman Sajid, a fourth year computer science student at Dal from Pakistan.
“I love cooking and most of my friends are freeloaders, so they never say no to free food,” said Sajid, who was raised in Saudi Arabia and graduates in October.
Pretty much every second weekend he whips up a feast of biryani. “It’s basically spicy rice with curried chicken.”
Sajid makes enough for a large group of friends and gathers them together for a feast. “I come from a family of nine people and that’s our idea of spending good time with each other – have some food and sit around and talk with each other. I actually force my friends to put our phones in the corner.”
Sajid offers up this piece of advice to other international students: don’t be afraid to ask loads of questions.
“We have a lot of international students who come from the places that I come from. In the university culture there, the professor-student relationship works very differently as compared to the way it works here,” he said.
“I’ve had teachers and professors (here) sitting up with me, helping me out, going out of their way, helping me out in the Atrium, sitting with me for half hours, two hours even, just to make sure that I’m on the right track,” Sajid said.
“This is something I did not see back home. And I think this is something which many students are not aware of, especially the international ones, because they do not know that most of the professors are very relaxed and they go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable. When I first came here, (I was) used to calling professors sir. That’s how we address our professors back home. So here, I was constantly told throughout my first year, ‘You can call me by my first name.’”
Sometimes Sajid still has a difficult time doing that. But he believes it shows profs want to make sure international students know they are approachable. “It’s a very Canadian thing for me and I love it. It’s very friendly and warm.”
The same is true for Seremba. At Dal, if you can’t figure out how to write an assignment, you go to the university’s Writing Centre, she said.
“Uganda is figure it out on your own, honey,” she said. “You have to step up. There is no professor who is going to tell you to go to the Writing Centre. There is no Writing Centre. So if you can’t write, that’s your problem.”
She had to talk to her entire extended family before deciding to come to Canada to study.
“People have to be OK with you coming here,” Seremba said. “If five people in my family had said, ‘No,’ there was no way I was getting on a plane to come here. In my culture people, especially elders, they feel insulted if you don’t take their advice.”
Much like she checked in with her family in Uganda, Seremba’s gone to Dal’s International Centre looking for advice on all manner of things related to university life. Staffers there helped her figure out where to find an apartment, go shopping, and get a mobile phone.
Dal’s Writing Centre was also helpful, she said.
“I can speak very fluent, very conversant English, but writing academically is a challenge for me and still is. So being able to have someone go through my papers with me and have the option of someone who is not my friend” edit them is supportive, Seremba said.
“We don’t have that back home. I don’t think it’s because they discourage it. It’s just how we are socialized.”
In Uganda, there’s a barrier between young people and their elders, she said. “It’s difficult to just easily approach them, whereas here you can go to your professor and ask them (or say) ‘I don’t understand that. How do I go about this paper?’ And, ‘Could you read through my first five pages for me?’ Which for me shocked me because there’s no professor back home who has the time to go through (all their student’s papers). We’re a class of 500 to one professor.”
Cheating and allegations of cheating
It appears as if, at least sometimes, that extra help provided here isn’t enough.
A note recently distributed to bachelor of commerce students at Dal points to suspicions that some international students were paying someone else to do their work. The associate dean at the faculty of management is its author.
“At this time of year, I know you are working busily on final assignments and term projects,” Vivian Howard wrote in her March 6 email to commerce and management students.
“It has come to our attention that some businesses such as Halifax Institute of Learning Canada and Chengguo Education may be preparing assignments for students for a fee. I wanted to remind everyone that submitting work completed on your behalf by another person or organization is a violation of academic integrity and a serious academic offence. The normal penalty for this offence is a zero on the assignment and a failing grade in the class.”
Howard got the name wrong of the second school. It’s actually called The Halifax Language Institute of Canada.
Both institutions denied Howard’s allegations in a CBC report published Thursday.
After Wentao Li, Chengguo’s founder, heard about Howard’s note naming his company, he lawyered up. Li’s lawyer, David Coles, wrote to Dal looking for an email to be circulated to commerce and management students saying Howard’s March 6 email “referenced Chengguo Education Ltd. in error.”
Howard has since backed away from her allegations in an email to commerce and management students.
“In an earlier email this term, we reminded you that work completed on your behalf by another person or organization is a serious violation of academic integrity,” Howard wrote.
“In that email, we incorrectly indicated that some local businesses, including Chengguo Education, may have been preparing assignments for students. Since then, we have had conversations with Chengguo’s principal and would like to confirm that he has assured us that his company does not support this kind of activity.”
Chengguo’s Wentao Li, who also goes by the first name Michael, said Thursday that he has provided documentation to Dal showing his staffers have actually refused requests to prepare assignments for a fee.
“It was just incredible,” Li said of Howard’s first email that went out to hundreds of students.
“First of all, we didn’t do that,” he said of Howard’s initial allegations that Chengguo may be preparing student assignments for a fee.
“I just don’t know why they can be that irresponsible.”
Li, who is an economics undergraduate student at Dal, opened Chengguo last fall.
“I was a tutor at Dal before and lots of students came to me because they have difficulty in studying or they have some cultural gap like a different education model or different study model when they came to Canada,” he said. “So I just tried to help them.”
When students approached Li looking for help with other subjects he didn’t know how to teach, he decided to launch Chengguo with a friend.
Chengguo means “successful” in Mandarin, he said, noting the official name of the company is Orange Education Ltd.
“In this semester we have around 250 students,” Li said, noting about 90 per cent of them are international students.
Most of Chengguo’s students are from Dal, he said. “Some are students from Saint Mary’s University and some of them are from Mount Saint Vincent.”
He feels slighted by his own university.
“Dal is absolutely hurting my business,” Li said. “But the more important thing is it’s hurting not only our students, it’s their students as well. It’s hurting international students.”
Li, who is 23, hopes to stay in Halifax after he graduates from Dal. “I love this city,” he said.
Howard has not returned calls from The Examiner placed last week and earlier this week. Instead, a university spokesman emailed this reporter Wednesday saying inquiries to Howard had been directed to him for follow-up.
“The university has not received any allegations it can act on,” Dal spokesman Brian Leadbetter said in an email Thursday. “We regret sending the first email, which is why we issued the correction. We have had conversations with the company’s principal and we have been assured that the company does not support this kind of activity. Dalhousie takes our commitment to academic integrity very seriously. It is a common practice for us to remind students periodically throughout the year of our commitment to academic integrity. Work completed on a student’s behalf by another person or organization is a violation of academic integrity and a serious academic offence.”
If cheating among international students is a problem, Dal isn’t eager to discuss the issue.
At a March economics lecture at the school’s University Club, I met Diane Hawco, Dal’s ombudsperson. When we spoke briefly after the lecture, she noted the two main reasons her office hears from international students are housing problems and cheating issues.
Hawco said she would consider an interview on the subject. But after I sent her a couple of notes trying to line up a chat, she responded with this email:
Sorry so long getting back to you. I have been having an internal struggle about whether to meet. I think my long-term goal of effecting some change here at Dalhousie has won out over my desire to share my thoughts and opinions on international students and their experiences.
So therefore, I have to decline your offer. Had I been here a couple of years and have some internal credibility with faculty and administration, my answer would be different.
A Wall Street Journal analysis published last year shows public universities in the U.S. recorded 5.1 reports of alleged cheating for every 100 international students, versus one report per 100 domestic students.
Academic integrity researcher Julia Christensen Hughes hasn’t seen similar research for Canada. But she cautioned that looking at self-reported data, or how many students got caught, doesn’t necessarily provide a full picture of who is cheating.
“People might suggest, well, is something going on like carding by the police? Are people more suspicious of international students? So are they looking more closely? Are they more likely to take an international student through the formal procedures? Whereas they might more informally mentor or coach a domestic student. I don’t know to what extent any of that is happening. So I’m just saying be careful with the language. You’re not saying in that US study for sure international students cheat more,” said Hughes, the dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph.
That said, international students have a number of different challenges that they might be dealing with.
“One is if they are studying in a language other than their first language, then they’re going to struggle with English as an additional language,” Hughes said.
“How do you learn a new language? Well, you tend to parrot what you’ve read or see. So that’s sort of one level of explanation … if they don’t properly cite or if there’s passages that are duplicated. Is this more reflective the struggles of somebody learning in another language? Honestly, I don’t know how people do it. I couldn’t go to another country and earn a university degree in an entirely different language.”
Another issue could be educational systems from other countries reward different things than a Western model, she said. “In some cultures, it’s more expected that the student parrots what they’ve been told or read, whereas in Western culture we’re asking people to think more critically and introduce their own thoughts. Students might struggle making that transition.”
Foreign students might be under particular pressure “to the extent that their parents have invested in their education,” Hughes said. “They may be representing their family’s pride in coming to the West to study and does that then … provide an extra layer of temptation to cheat to get good marks? Or if your government has paid for you to be there.”
Students, overall, cheat for several different reasons, Hughes said.
“One is the cost-benefit-analysis,” she said. “If students determine that there’s little likelihood of getting caught; if there’s little chance of a serious penalty even if they are caught, and if they find themselves behind in their work, pressured for whatever reason, then some students will tell you that they were tempted to cheat — to take a shortcut.”
Students sometimes cheat when they feel cheated, Hughes said.
“So if they feel that the faculty member doesn’t care, is ill prepared, if the test or assignment isn’t fair, if the prof, for example, is using the same exam or assignment over and over again and some students have access to that information and others don’t, then that creates what’s perceived as an un-level playing field. So in those kinds of circumstances, too, students could be tempted to cheat.”
Canadian universities need educational programs “to make sure that international students understand our expectations and traditions,” she said.
That means offering support through learning centres for those studying in a second language, Hughes said.
Universities also need to make sure penalties are implemented fairly across the board when students are caught cheating, she said.
“But perhaps for all students, rather than focusing on punishment in the first instance, we need to make sure that that educational component is there, and that’s why a lot institutions have an official warning as a first response that requires students to go through some additional education to make sure they are familiar with the rules, and not just what the rules are, but why they’re important.”
Full-time Visa Students at Nova Scotian universities
|University||# students 2016||# change, 2015 to 2016||% change, 2015 to 2016|
|Dalhousie||3277||+ 407||+ 14.2%|
|SMU||2116||- 15||- 0.7%|
|CBU||716||- 5||- 0.7%|
|MSVU||573||- 15||- 8.5%|
|Acadia||488||+ 7||+ 1.5%|
|St. FX||270||+ 43||+ 18.9%|
|NSCAD||136||+ 1||+ 0.7%|
|King's||39||- 3||- 7.1%|
|Total||7,760||+ 375||+ 5.1%|
“Universities have made significant capital investments in land and buildings, but also human resource investments in terms of tenured faculty. The largest percentage of a university’s budget goes towards faculty salaries. And because faculty are tenured, they’ve got this significant obligation,” Hughes said.
“So as domestic student enrollments have declined — and it’s those enrollments that bring in tuition and government transfer payments —they’ve needed to shore-up their numbers with international students. They need to do that to balance the budget.”
“The question for me that relates to academic integrity is: what are those students being promised?” Hughes said.
She wonders if universities always practice truth in advertising when they recruit from abroad.
“What I get concerned about is if the recruitment is happening in a very focused way in one or two targeted countries, and yet the students are being promised a Canadian experience, and then they get here and they find that they’re in classes largely with other people from their own home country, have we honoured what we presented as the experience they would have?”
International students at Nova Scotia universities
|2011-12||Percentage of total enrolment, 2011-12||2015-16||Percentage of total enrolment, 2015-16|
There’s no question that international students can bring much to the classroom, she said.
“But I think we need a diversity within the student population so that students really do connect with one another across whether its countries or cultures,” Hughes said.
“You want that integrated experience rather than students remaining within their own culture. And I think that’s something we need to think about.”
Students sometimes choose a university is to develop an international network of friends and colleagues, she said. If “everybody in their class is from their home country, then that network is just not being established,” Hughes said.
Profiting from international students
Numbers published by the Association of Atlantic Universities show international students from China topped the list in Nova Scotia over the past four years. There were 3,159 Chinese students studying here in 2015-16.
Saudi Arabia was second on the list with 1,018 students in Nova Scotia in 2015-16. India was third with 362 people studying here.
Jass Singh, who recently graduated from Dal with his masters in computer engineering, said most of the students in his classes came from China and India, his homeland.
“But of course if I am taking arts, then most of them are from Canada,” he said.
Most of his professors were really good at helping students who didn’t have English as their first language. “They repeat things. If I don’t understand something, I can ask questions,” Singh said. “Also, if you have any problems, you can go to their office and talk to them.”
When he first landed in Halifax in January 2014 from his hometown of New Delhi, it was snowing.
Singh was a stranger to the Canadian climate.
“Where I came from, winters are, like, 25 C, or 20 C, not less than that,” he said.
So Singh didn’t know any better when the cabby who drove him into town from the Halifax Stanfield International Airport over-charged for the ride. “He told me (there was a fee) for one extra bag,” and that he also had to charge more because he was driving in a snowstorm.
“People see you are new” to Canada and they “exploit you,” he said.
Singh stayed in a hotel for his first four days until he found an apartment that had both bedbugs and mice.
“I lived there for about a month,” he said.
After finding a better apartment he heard the best way to outfit an apartment was to buy used furniture. “People told me it was cheap. But it contains bedbugs.”
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., security deposits in Nova Scotia can’t exceed half a month’s rent. But Singh said some landlords are charging international students six times that amount. Even when they find out that’s not allowed here, international students are often reluctant to speak out, he said.
“They don’t want to get into this mess,” Singh said.
The same goes for international students who fall for online scammers who demand deposits to reserve apartments that don’t exist, he said.
“They are kind of afraid that if they tell someone they’ll get into (trouble with the) police. Because it’s a new country; it’s a new place for them. So they are too afraid to come out into the open, and that’s how these things are still working, because no one complains.”
Some international students in Halifax pay $1,200 for a room in a house, plus two meals a day, Singh said.
“That’s really expensive,” he said. “They make a lot of money.”
Tenants are sometimes led to believe they’ll be living close to their university, only to learn they are rooming in Dartmouth or Cole Harbour.
Singh is the managing director of an organization called Univfax that tries to help new international students find legit apartments once they land here.
“That’s totally for free,” he said, noting landlords pay to see their places listed by the service.
Univfax has a deal with a cab company to charge international students $35 to get to or from the airport.
It also organizes a volunteer buddy program to help international students get local identification and set up bank accounts here, Singh said.
“We will assign you a student from the same university you are going into, and if you’re from China, then he’s going to be Chinese. If you’re from India, then he’s going to be an Indian.”
In terms of education, Singh believes Nova Scotia is serving international students well.
But he also sees room for improvement.
University residence rooms are expensive, Singh said, suggesting international students, who already pay a steep differential fee that added about 50 per cent to the cost of his degree from Dal, should get a discount for somewhere to stay on campus.
While some international students are wealthy, many borrow the money to come to school here, Singh said.
He is now looking for a job in Canada. He owes about $40,000 in student loans.
“I would really like to pay my debt off as soon as possible and then maybe go back to India,” he said. “My whole family is back in India.”
Back home, people may not have heard of Halifax or Nova Scotia.
But they recognize the Dalhousie University name, he said. “It’s got a great reputation.”
Singh is allowed to work here for three years after graduation. He wants to earn Canadian dollars to pay off his student loan faster than would be possible if he was being paid in Indian rupees. But he hasn’t found an employer here willing to hire him.
“I’ve been to so many immigration panels where they say they want (international) students to settle here in Nova Scotia,” he said.
“I want to be here. I really like Halifax. It’s a pretty beautiful city. It’s a small city. There’s not much traffic. But if I don’t have a job, I would have to move to a bigger place.”
Asked whether international students at Nova Scotia universities are being served well, Dal economics professor Lars Osberg responded via email from Korea. He’s there for a conference on the measurement of economic wellbeing.
“It varies a lot,” Osberg said. “In Economics we have a program in which we give the students a lot of support — but students who come on their own often flounder, without support.”
Osberg indicated that the growing number of international students could be influencing the way some faculty members teach.
“Some professors feel a pressure to adjust teaching style — e.g. not as many written assignments or essays,” Osberg said.
It “makes a lot of sense” that the province is hoping to keep some of these young graduates as a means to bolster our flagging demographics, he said.
“These are highly intelligent, motivated, connected people who will, over their working life, pay a lot of income tax,” Osberg said. “They often discover that they like Nova Scotia — and they will be a major asset to the community if they stay.”
Nova Scotia’s universities are trying hard to provide an excellent education to international students, said David Wheeler, the former president of Cape Breton University.
“It’s a big part of the province’s future that we continue to attract international students, not just because they contribute significantly to the quality of life and the cultural diversity on campuses, but of course we also hope that increasing numbers of them will stay in the province and help build the economy and the inter-cultural and multi-cultural benefits that students from many different countries can build throughout society,” Wheeler said.
“I think we do a pretty good job; we could do a better job. But I think it’s a really, really important priority for Nova Scotia.”
The province has seen significant increases in the number of international students in recent years, Wheeler said.
“Saint Mary’s and Cape Breton University have been very much a part of that – touching on 30 per cent approximately of all students coming from different parts of the world. Other universities in the province haven’t been quite so active. But I think they’re becoming more active now. And, of course, Dalhousie has always been an international destination because of its research-intensive nature, obviously lending itself to many post-graduate opportunities for international students.”
While some think the numbers should continue to grow, that growth comes with occasional tensions, Wheeler said.
Teaching complex concepts in English to people who don’t have English as a first language can cause problems, he said.
“But that’s a very subject-specific thing. Obviously teaching philosophy or English literature to a student who’s operating in a second or third language is, perhaps, a little bit tougher than if you’re teaching accounting or finance. So there are some specific discipline-based areas where special care needs to be taken.”
But professors at “all good universities” try hard to compensate for that and to support students in their learning, Wheeler said.
“Because once they’ve been accepted, they’re a legitimate student, they’re paying their tuition and they deserve the best possible education.”
Many students operating in a second or third language are completely competent in English, “and would handle hugely complex conceptual arguments,” he said.
“That doesn’t necessarily go for everyone,” Wheeler said. “But it probably also doesn’t go for every Nova Scotian-born student either.”
He cautioned against falling into unfortunate generalizations about international students.
“Universities in our province and universities across Canada do try very hard and probably do a lot better than, perhaps, some other jurisdictions,” Wheeler said.
“We should, therefore, compliment ourselves on that, to an extent, whilst always making sure that we’re continuing to invest in the student experience — wherever the students come from.”
Cape Breton University has about 3,200 students. It had attracted lots from Saudi Arabia until the Saudi Cultural Bureau yanked its financial support in December of 2015.
“At it’s height at CBU, we had more than 400 Saudi students,” said Wheeler, who headed the university from 2013 until the board of governors dismissed him late last year during a messy round of labour negotiations with faculty.
“Now it would be less than 100. But I’m pleased to say that, despite that quite significant reduction in students from a particular country, the investments that CBU made, and I believe continues to make, have held the number around about 29 or 30 per cent.” (The actual figure is 25.4 per cent.)
There are lots of theories as to why the Saudis jumped ship en masse. Oil prices had tanked. Perhaps the ratio of Saudi students to the student body as a whole grew too high.
“The simple answer is no one really knows,” Wheeler said. “It was a decision taken in Riyadh. The king whose name was associated with the scholarships died a couple of years back and that, some people thought, might have been connected to it. It may have been economic. It may have been different policy direction. But it’s never actually been made explicitly clear by the Saudi authorities why that happened.”
The swift departure of wealthy Saudi students prompts the question: what if something horrible happens in China and, suddenly, we see a significant drop in students from East Asia?
“That would have a devastating affect on many universities because students from China, of course, are one of the major sources of international student attendance in Canadian universities and English-speaking universities around the world,” Wheeler said.
“So it’s a risky game in the sense that, if you bet everything on international students, as universities are increasingly doing, what that means for particular cohorts if they come and go. So it’s not a simple game, that’s for sure.”
Nova Scotia “desperately needs demographic and cultural change,” Wheeler said.
“International students represent a lot of hope for our province,” he said. “A lot of contributions can be made in campuses and beyond campuses by international students.”
They bring “new possibilities” for Nova Scotia, he said.
“International students often make a fabulous contribution to campus life. They have their own celebrations, their own cultural calendar moments which, certainly, I think can be very, very powerful and send out a massive signal both within the community of the university, but also in the broader community, and that’s certainly what we found in Cape Breton,” Wheeler said.
“They start up businesses, often while they’re still studying. And sometimes they stay and grow those businesses.”
International students represent the possibility of changing the future direction of Nova Scotia’s economy, he said.
“We are obviously struggling as a province on many different levels and hope is in short supply … But we have to conjure sources of hope and I think international students absolutely represent that. And we have to make sure not only that we attract them, but they are fully supported when they are here by the universities and by the receiving communities and that they are encouraged to stay.”
The “overwhelming majority of students would like to stay if that was possible,” he said.
“The federal government doesn’t provide as many slots for them as we, perhaps, would like,” Wheeler said.
“But I think we could do a much better job of enabling students to stay and encouraging them to stay because that should really start even before they arrive.”
During his time at CBU, universities weren’t allowed to even talk about immigration with international students.
“That was deemed to be inappropriate and even illegal because, unless you’re a qualified immigration consultant, you’re not allowed to talk about immigration to prospective students or existing students,” Wheeler said.
When Chen Quing was studying business at Saint Mary’s University, he didn’t particularly want to work for someone else. Instead, the international student from Dalian, a port city in Northeast China, started his own business.
Quing, who earned his bachelor of commerce from SMU in 2014, is known around town as The Mattress King.
“When I was 19 years old I started my first business in Canada,” he said.
Quing was in his second year of studies at SMU and he’d won a couple of movie tickets he didn’t plan to use.
“So I decided to sell them online,” he said.
He posted the tickets on a Mandarin buy-and-sell site called eclife.ca and they sold in a few minutes.
So Quing started looking around his apartment for other items to sell. He unloaded a second-hand microwave, television, and vacuum that had belonged to previous tenants for a couple of bucks.
Then he spotted a used Queen-size mattress selling for $20 on the Mandarin site.
“I was thinking that was a damned good deal,” he said. “My second-hand mattress when I bought it was like $120.”
So Quing bought the mattress for $20 and sold it online within two days for $120.
That near instant profit convinced him to concentrate on buying and selling used mattresses for the next two years.
Eventually, he persuaded several mattress manufacturers to sell him new models in bulk that he continued flogging over the Internet, using his Barrington Street apartment as a showroom.
“I lived in one of the bedrooms and the other bedroom I kept as my office,” Quing said.
“A lot of international students started to realize there’s a Chinese guy who sells mattresses here in the city and he offers great deals because the overhead’s low … They all came to me.”
With sales booming by 2013, Quing found a bigger 10th floor penthouse apartment on South Street where he kept doing business for another two years.
“I started to carry sofas, some office furniture, some dining room furniture — it was more like a furniture store at that time.”
He opened Hometown Furniture, a 6,000 square foot showroom on Almon Street, in November 2015, and a second location in Charlottetown in April of 2016. A Burnside location wasn’t far behind, opening in November of last year.
But what Quing didn’t have was a permit to stay in Canada.
“I couldn’t apply for permanent residency in Canada based on my business,” he said.
When he started seeking status in 2013, “Nova Scotia didn’t have any immigration stream that will fit under this criteria as an international student who owns a business.”
If he’d worked for a local business, he could have applied for permanent status. But as an employer, Quing was out of luck.
When his case made headlines, the provincial and federal governments eventually invented a new immigration stream for international student entrepreneurs. It came into play in January 2016.
“That was because of me,” Quing said. “I was kind of proud to say that.”
Oddly enough, he didn’t wind up using it.
“I found a job — I was working for TD for almost a year,” he said, noting the bank helped him apply for permanent residency status in Canada.
When he was interviewed for this story in February, Quing was waiting for the final documentation of his permanent residency to arrive from Ottawa.
“For citizenship — I have to wait for another five or six years,” he said.
Quing’s pleased that a stream is now in place for people like him. “That way they will encourage not only Canadian students, but international students to start a business in Nova Scotia.”
A lot of Quing’s young friends are now opening businesses in Halifax due to the policy change.
“They’re hiring people. They’re paying taxes. They’re contributing to the economy, which is very good,” he said.
With more international students coming into Halifax every year, Quing, now 26, has started another business that helps Mandarin speakers find apartments.
“And guess what’s next?” he said with a grin. “Furniture. It’s all connected.”