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Reductions in NSISP could cost Nova Scotia future growth opportunities

COVID-19 has cost Nova Scotia a lot. Now it might cost it future international students too.

The Nova Scotia International Student Program (NSISP) is a homestay program that brings high school students from around the world to experience Canada while they work on their education. It recently had to suspend operations for three semesters and now it’s finding it difficult to locate host families.

“Prior to the pandemic, we would have about 12,000 students in the province at any given time. Obviously, over that time, things changed,” says Rosson, who knows of many former homestay hosts who had to convert spare bedrooms into home offices or give those bedrooms to other family members on a permanent basis.

“Coming out of COVID, we had about 400 students this semester, which was relatively straightforward. We were able to place them,” Rosson says. “We’re still working hard to place the last 50 to 60 students. It looks like we should get there, but we did have to refuse, I’d say, in the neighbourhood of 200 students just due to not having enough homestays.”

Fewer exchange students choosing to study in Nova Scotia will have an economic impact, Rosson explains.

“These students pay for their tuition, they pay for their homestays,” Rosson says. “I think the schools appreciate the revenue the students bring in, and it allows the schools to do some projects they may not otherwise. If we can get the right mix of students to regions that maybe can use more students in their schools… it has a positive financial impact on the province.”

The homestay program also has a positive impact on retention, Rosson adds.

“We have a large number of students who graduate here every year; roughly 35 per cent (this is pre-pandemic) of about 250 or so students who graduate high school here and stay for university. I certainly do think there’s a correlation between our program, and how welcoming and well-received our program is, and how Nova Scotia is perceived as a place to immigrate.”

Take Cece Lopez Salgado, for example. She relocated from her home in Mexico to Nova Scotia to complete her Grade 9 year. Little did she know she’d be completing her high school education here too.

“My mom always wanted me to learn English,” says Lopez Salgado, who arrived in the province in 2019. “I was very excited. I was also very afraid, because I’m very close to my mom, I’m very close to my friends in Mexico, and I’m going to leave them for a year.”

However, Lopez Salgado says her host parents, the Mahars from Bible Hill, made the experience feel a lot closer to home.

“They treated me as if I was [one of] their children,” says Lopez Salgado, who has remained in Nova Scotia past Grade 9 due to COVID-19. “If I hadn’t had the host family I had these three years, I would probably just have quit and gone back home.”

Now that she’s completing high school, Lopez Salgado says she’s looking ahead to university.
“I’m still trying to decide if I want to stay here for university or not,” she says. “But I feel like I really want to, because I just love the Canada lifestyle here.”

The flip side is the impact exchange students have on their host families. Lopez Salgado is far from the first exchange student Susan Mahar and her husband Richard have hosted.

“We’ve been host parents for about 12 years,” Susan says. “We’ve probably had 30-some girls from 15 countries. We still speak to some of them almost every day. There’s one in particular, from Japan, that my husband talks to every morning on Facebook.”

The Mahars became host parents for the NSISP homestay program because they had friends who hosted exchange students and thought it looked like a fun way to fill an empty nest. Their own son is in his 50s with kids of his own.

As much as the Mahars enjoy being host parents, they know their time left with the program is short.

“She will be our last one,” Susan says of Lopez Salgado. “We’re in our late 60s. The process of taking in a child you don’t know and teaching them the rules of the house… sometimes it can be very trying.”

It’s not uncommon for folks like the Mahars, who come back to the program more than once, to age out of being host parents. What is unusual, according to Rosson, is how many families are now unable or unwilling to offer their homes to students abroad.

The cost of living is a contributing factor the Mahars believe is at play; as Susan explains, NSISP pays host families a stipend to offset the cost of their houseguests.

“But it doesn’t offset,” she says. “If you take into consideration the cost of food, the cost of gas, running the kids here, there, and everywhere because they have school activities, or a host parent may live out of town, it’s a cost factor for a lot of people.”

And that’s just fulfilling the basic requirements of the program. The Mahars go above and beyond, travelling with their host daughters across the region.

“We take Cece places,” Susan says. “We’ve taken all of our kids to show them parts of Nova Scotia. If you are a good host parent, you do it because you want to do it, not for the money.”

The greatest loss due to fewer host families could well be to the province’s cultural richness.

“We’ve had over 20,000 students from 67 countries who come to Nova Scotia, who probably otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to,” Rosson says. “Having these students in the homestays, the whole cultural exchange of making the world smaller, but yet larger at the same time, I think is huge.”

The NSISP has tried raising the amount it offers to help recruit new households, but it’s also trying out digital messaging and canvasing lifestyle trade shows, targeting not Nova Scotians’ wallets, but their hearts.

“’Bringing the world home’ is one of the slogans we’ve used,” Rosson says, appealing to the Maritime’s naturally welcoming nature. “The relationships that they build with the students often become lifelong relationships. We have hundreds of examples.”

“I would encourage anyone to be a host parent,” Susan says. “It is an amazing experience. You meet so many different people, from so many different cultures.”

If you’re interested in hosting an exchange student, you can visit nsisp.ca/host for more information.

Chris Muise

Chris Muise is a writer/contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience

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