A unique Study and Stay Program helps international students as future employees and entrepreneurs in Nova Scotia

By Suzanne Rent

Austin Zhang arrived in Halifax on January 3, 2010 at 1 a.m. after a 14-hour flight from China. He was coming here from his hometown outside of Shanghai to study at Dalhousie. He did know someone here; his mom’s friend’s daughter went to Dalhousie, too. They met him at the airport. The city was hit by a storm the day before. Zhang remembers the piles snow everywhere. It was his first time seeing snow and it wasn’t a happy one. He was also exhausted from the trip.

“I just started to cry,” he says. “I remember thinking this is what my future looks like.”

Now, seven years later, Zhang’s experience in the city is a more positive one. He loves its nature, hiking outside the city, and camping. Summer is his favourite season. And he has a job as a recruitment coordinator with EduNova, a cooperative industry association of education and training providers in Nova Scotia. Zhang works on a new program called Study and Stay in Nova Scotia, which recruits students to the province to study and eventually work, providing them with the resources and supports along the way.

“Before I came here, I had no idea where Nova Scotia is, no idea where Halifax is,” Zhang says. “A lot of students don’t know where the province or the city is. Promoting the province, promoting education here is the most important thing for me to let people know where we are and what we do.”

The Study and Stay Program is the second of unique programming for EduNova. The first program was Stay in Nova Scotia, which was launched in 2015. That program included a cohort of 50 students who were recruited in their final year of university. The goal was to provide them the support to stay in the province beyond graduation in July. Twenty-two of the 50 got jobs in their field.

“To hear their stories is incredibly inspiring,” says Wendy Luther, president and CEO of EduNova. “To hear from them the supports from the program, supports from their mentors and the skills they got in the program.”

In the Study and Stay Program, at least another 50 students will have access to resources and supports from before they arrive in Nova Scotia. Zhang has been talking with the students and their parents for months already, helping them with advice, including what to pack. Zhang and the program mentors will follow the students through to graduation and beyond. The students for this cohort come from China, India, and the Philippines. Every university in the province is involved, as are campuses of NSCC.

“At this moment, Nova Scotia is uniquely positioned to create and deliver this kind of program because we all work so closely together,” Luther says. “The beauty of this program is youth get all 11 post-secondary institutions sharing ideas to the project.”

As part of the program, students will receive employment and transition support from a retention coordinator at EduNova. They will develop networks with their peers and business professionals around the province.  They will take part in a two-day Employment Preparedness and Cohort Retreat. And they will develop job search skills, branding techniques, complete a workplace placement, and more.

The program has had an unexpected consequence, too, by bringing Nova Scotia and what it has to offer in education and employment to the world stage.

“That wasn’t something that was top of mind when we created the program,” Luther says. “We created the program to help the students and help the province. This additional goodwill and profile created for the province externally was something we did not foresee, but, of course, is very welcome.”

Luther says Zhang brings something unique to the program, including his fluency in Mandarin and lived experience as an international student who came to Nova Scotia.

“Those who are working on the project from an employer standpoint or those of us who are native Nova Scotians and been here for many, many years, we have an idea of what students are looking for in terms of the messaging they want to receive and support they are looking for, but Austin has that experience firsthand,” she says. “When Austin is sharing his personal experience with students and their parents, that this is his authentic story, that they can see themselves reflected in his experience.”

The Study and Stay Program is gaining international attention. Luther says other jurisdictions have approached EduNova to see how they can roll out a similar program. And the program has been honoured with awards; it received an outstanding achievement award from the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, and was shortlisted for the Pioneer Award.

For Zhang, the program is more than connecting international students to universities and future employers. It’s about connecting them to a new home. He remembers well that first experience arriving in the city and he wants the students he’s working with to know they have someone here to support them. One of students with the Study and Stay Program arrived in Halifax from India and is already connecting with the city. He will attend NSCAD in September, but in the meantime took in his first camping trip.

“I want them to have a great experience here,” Zhang says. ” I think for me one of the things, it’s not just students. They are human beings, a person. You get to know the stories. Always just check in with students, how are you doing, to know we are here, to make it feel like someone is always here to support them.”

Suzanne Rent

Suzanne Rent

Suzanne Rent is a writer/contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience