Cape Breton Post photographer Steve Wadden spent more than eight months immersed in the lives of international students in Cape Breton to see what impact their new home has on them, and to find out how the students blend into the distinct culture that exists on the island. Wadden chose the assignment out of his natural curiosity and as an exercise in photojournalism in consultation with Randy Olson, an award-winning U.S. photographer and contributor to National Geographic magazine. Waddenâs images tell a unique story, and Post reporter Erin Pottie adds perspective, for those new to Cape Breton and for those who call the island home.
On a stormy night in the dead of winter, immigration hopeful Yolanda Yang, a student fresh from Inner Mongolia, gets a first look at her new home. While driving from the airport near Sydney to her homestay in Glace Bay, she looked out the window and asked, in broken English: âWhere are all the highrisesâŠthe skyscrapers?â Steve Wadden â Cape Breton Post
SYDNEY â Yolanda Yangâs early days in Cape Breton werenât perfect. In fact, they still arenât.
She hates the bitter winter winds that blow across the Atlantic. And donât even ask about going anywhere by bus on a Sunday.
But the Inner Mongolia native says the place sheâs chosen to study is peaceful and people are friendly.
âWhen Iâm walking on the street people will say âHiâ to you,â said the outgoing, wanderlust 20-year-old.
At the local market, Sydney folks have offered to help Yang carry her groceries. And her Glace Bay landlords treat her like their own daughter.
She grew to appreciate Cape Bretonâs quiet and kindness so much that she considered making a permanent move here.
âI prefer a smaller place and more Canadian people,â said Yang. âBefore I came here, I didnât know where was Nova Scotia. I only know some big, big provinces like B.C. and Ontario.â
But Yangâs future in Cape Breton is in jeopardy.
She was originally enticed by Nova Scotiaâs fast-track immigration stream for international students, but in March the program closed.
âA little bit disappointed,â said Yang. âI came here and some of my friends also came here for the immigration policy, and when they cancelled, a lot of my friends, they moved to another university because some of them they can go to a better university.â
Launched in 2007, the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration expected its international student stream would help encourage students like Yang to apply for permanent residency upon graduation.
Among the conditions of application, students were required to have a job offer from a Nova Scotia employer with whom they'd been employed for at least three consecutive months.
Now students must apply to a federal program â the Canadian experience class â that requires them to have one year paid employment in managerial, professional or skilled workers designations.
Several calls to Nova Scotia Immigration Minister and New Waterford native Frank Corbett were not returned.
An email sent on Corbettâs behalf said the closure of the international grad stream was initiated by the federal government as a way to address an overlap of an existing program.
According to the email, Nova Scotia has opened immigration seats to other applicants, such as skilled workers and family business workers.
Department spokeswoman Heather MacDougall said those nominees âtend to stay in Nova Scotia to a greater extent than international grads.â
Nova Scotia immigration statistics show 465 international graduates applied for permanent residency since 2011 and of that number, 56 intended to settle in Cape Breton.
In the same two years, 120 international students graduated from Cape Breton University.
And while most international students leave Cape Breton, the economic benefit of having them here is undeniable.
CBU estimates its international student body contributes $30-40 million to the local economy annually.
Student dollars are spent on housing, food, tuition and transportation, including new vehicles.
CBU also reports more than $50 million in infrastructure growth over the last decade, with international student enrolment considered a significant contributor.
Administrators say CBUâs Shannon School of Business was built entirely from private funds that were influenced by and funded through international student growth.
Meanwhile, approximately 25 per cent of the universityâs $40-million annual revenue for the past year can be attributed to international student enrolment.
âI donât want to be contrite and say the money isnât important,â said Keith Brown, vice-president of international and aboriginal affairs at CBU. âThe money is important. But itâs far, far, far more than revenue.â
Brown said international students also bring cultural experiences to an isolated region.
âYouâve got more intercultural interactions, youâve got innovation, youâve got people looking at Cape Breton as a place to immigrate to, to buy properties and buy businesses (and) youâve got their home connections, too.â
In fact, CBU is now home to more than 1,000 students from 27 countries â representing nearly 30 per cent of its overall student body.
CBUâs partner in English language training, the International Centre for English Academic Preparation in Glace Bay, also has a rolling enrolment rate of 350-400 students per year.
On top of that, students who come from places such as Saudia Arabia often bring their spouses and children to Cape Breton.
Kerrianne MacKenzie, the centre's corporate affairs manager, estimates each student contributes about $20,000 per year into the Cape Breton economy.
Some international students have stayed in Cape Breton to operate businesses, such as the Camel Lounge, Shiraz Market, and Hong Fa Restaurant, all located in Sydney.
âNumbers aside, if you visit Glace Bay and Sydney and look at the amount of development and the amount of diversity, the new restaurants, the housing, the increases in car sales and whatnot, they are tied directly to the internationalization of our student body,â said MacKenzie.
However, CBU's international student population grew from more humble beginnings.
A little over a decade ago, CBUâs international enrolment was 30-40 students.
CBU administrators were also well aware of a 13-year demographic projection made by local school boards. And the number of future students projected wasn't good.
Jacquelyn Scott, former president of CBU, said great efforts were then made to recruit international students.
âIt started with a realization, which didnât require a lot of brilliance or math capability to see, that Cape Breton was not going to be a long-term supplier of sufficient numbers of students to maintain the university,â said Scott.
At home, CBU formed partnerships with other Canadian universities to bring international students to Sydney for part of their studies.
CBU also expanded into emerging world markets such as Cairo, Egypt, where CBU developed its own business school now attended by more than 2,000 students.
And in China, where the countryâs educational demand exceeded programs and institutions, CBU became the first Canadian university to open an office in Beijing in 2007.
âWe were among a very small number of smaller institutions at the time that we started,â said Scott. âBut it really enabled us to get a competitive foot in the door that meant that we could be more successful than most smaller institutions by the time we got to this point.â
Over the years, CBU slowly began to increase its international enrolment, both on campus and elsewhere.
And while the international student base is helping prop up a shrinking economy plagued with some of the highest out-migration and unemployment rates in the country, not everyone is putting out a welcome mat.
About six years ago, a study conducted by the Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority asked around 30 international students about their interest in staying in Cape Breton.
Many students reported feeling as if they werenât truly welcomed by the wider community.
âIndividuals were welcoming, host families were welcoming, the university was welcoming, but they didnât always get a good reception elsewhere in the community, or one that really said to them, âGee, weâd really like you to stay here,'" said Scott.
Asked about international students living in the cash-strapped Cape Breton Regional Municipality, John Whalley said he thought there might only be a few hundred international students living here.
âI had no idea that it was that large," the CBRM's regional economic development officer said when told the numbers from CBU. "Thatâs incredible âŠ that would have a significant impact. So itâs great to get the students here, but it would be tremendous if we could keep (them).â
Whalley said the Nova Scotia government should change its economic development polices to expand growth beyond urban centres like Halifax.
Whalley said the loss of international students may be the regionâs biggest missed opportunity.
âWeâre not able to take advantage of it because we have such a relatively stagnant economy here, that a lot of the young people, once theyâre graduating, are simply not able to stay here and find jobs.â
And thatâs exactly what happened to Joey Jang.
A native of South Korea, Jang transferred to CBU two-and-a-half years ago.
He finished a degree in hospitality and tourism management in the spring, but you wonât see Jang on any Sydney street. Thatâs because after an unsuccessful search for a job in Cape Breton, he packed up and moved to Toronto where he landed a job in the retail industry.
âFirst time, I wanted to work at the hotel, or any resort, in the hospitality industry,â said Jang. âBut there so many guys who think the same as me.â
He now hopes his Toronto job will help him fulfil the managerial or professional requirement to allow him to immigrate to Canada.
John MacNeil, president of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, is aware of the high volume of international students on the island. As a student in CBUâs master of business administration program, MacNeil not only sees international students each week, he also shares classes with them.
However, MacNeil said there are no specific chamber initiatives to help international students develop businesses here.
There are also no initiatives to encourage local businesses to cash in on business opportunities created by the influx of foreign students.
âThe idea that we could be doing more, that has not been something that has been brought to the chamber,â said MacNeil.
Meanwhile, Scott, who remains a professor at CBU, said the time to acknowledge international students is now.
âI think thatâs been our biggest failure as a community, in responding to the fact we have this enormous potential resource of students who really like being here and see it as an attractive place to live, but we havenât done much to facilitate either them or their families to make any of that happen.â
So for students like Yang and Jang, the challenges of staying in Cape Breton have begun to outweigh the benefits.
âHere, we donât have a lot of good hotels,â said Yang. âI only need to study two or three years and thatâs it. I will move. If they don't have any good immigration policy, then I will move to a bigger city.â
To see the slideshow, CLICK HERE