Offering international students community support and options for pursuing a career after graduation
In 2017, for the fourth year in a row, incoming first-year international students attending post-secondary education institutions in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were invited to the Mayor’s Welcome Party. Along with a message of appreciation for having chosen to study in Halifax came the invitation to enjoy their time in the region and perhaps consider staying on after graduation.
This year’s reception was the largest so far with over 400 students attending, and host Mike Savage, mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality, says he enjoyed posing for selfies and mingling with “these bright people, who are enthusiastic about being in school and about being in Halifax.”
The reason for turning the arrival of international students into a special occasion is simple: they are important for the city and the region. Not only do they provide an immediate economic impact, they are also seen as potential future residents. “Together with our university and college partners, we’re exploring measures for attracting and retaining talent. We believe that when new students can connect with community members and have a chance to meet me and some of our councillors, police and transit personnel, they can learn things that may be useful,” says Mr. Savage. “We want them to know that whatever place, faith or ethnicity they come from, there is a place for them in our city.”
alifax is changing, says Mr. Savage. It is becoming more and more diverse, and over the past two years, its population, especially in the 28 to 35 age bracket, has been growing.
This trend is especially noteworthy because it’s an exception in the region, says Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. “Atlantic Canada has the most rapidly aging and declining population in the country – it also has some of the lowest attraction and retention rates for new immigrants. That’s a pretty challenging combination that affects all aspects of life, and it certainly has an effect on universities,” he explains.
While a declining population means lower enrolment numbers of domestic students, Atlantic universities have been very successful in making up the shortfall by attracting students from the rest of Canada and from around the world, says Mr. Halpin.
And the combination of bringing potential new residents to the region and at the same time equipping them with up-to-date skills and knowledge makes post-secondary education a key driver of the Atlantic Growth Strategy, which aims to boost the Atlantic economy through measures like immigration and investments, he says. “Government, community and industry leaders all recognize that the region’s 16 universities are some of the best sources of new immigrants.”
Among the reasons why universities are successfully attracting international students are a reputation for providing quality education and student experiences, and course offerings that span a wide educational spectrum, says Mr. Halpin. And while universities affect the well-being of surrounding communities by contributing to the local economy and the social fabric, communities also have an impact on student experience, he says.
“Atlantic Canada is a very warm and welcoming place. We have a reputation for being friendly, and the communities where our universities are located are real university towns,” he says.
These factors all contribute to a positive student experience, says Mr. Halpin. “Our international students speak highly of the acceptance in the community and the welcoming environment in the region. Over 65 per cent say they would choose to stay in Atlantic Canada upon graduation if they had the opportunity.”
According to a recent survey, international students list “cost of living, a great place to raise a family and quality of life as the three top reasons for wanting to stay in the region,” says Mr. Halpin. “The top reason for wanting to leave, on the other hand, is lack of job opportunities.”
The critical issue for all students – Canadian and international alike – is whether they can find work in an area related to their fields of study, says Mr. Halpin. “We are working with a range of partners to reduce the barriers that prevent our students from establishing a career.”
The Mayor’s Welcome Party in Halifax is just one example where “town and gown can help each other out,” says Mr. Savage. Another initiative is the Bridging the Gap program, where graduates gain employment for 18 months directly after completing their degree. And career options in Halifax are expanding, since the city is attracting a growing number of businesses and has become a hub for tech, ocean sciences and finance, for example, he adds.
But regardless of their future plans, Mr. Savage wants to reiterate his message of welcome to first-year international students. “I want them and their parents to know that Halifax is glad that they are here,” he says. “We appreciate what they’re doing for the city, and we’re working to find opportunities for them if they want to stay.”
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