international students
Cape Breton University's international student population has boomed in just a few short years. Source: Shutterstock

The value of international students extends far beyond a school’s academic reputation. Having students from diverse national backgrounds mhas a big impact – not only within the university itself, but within the surrounding community.

A large number of international students in a town or city can drastically change the way it operates; for example, the mushrooming of restaurants to cater to international palates and the growth of student housing.

The Globe and Mail recently shed light on the transformation of Cape Breton Island in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, that happened in just a few years.

Before the influx of international students – mainly from India and China – the residents were unfamiliar with foreigners, despite sweeping migration in the country.

According to the article, “The first visible sign of Cape Breton University’s transformation was the lineup for the bus. Passing motorists craned their necks to stare at the clusters of students waiting on street corners, sometimes as many as 10 to 20 at a time. The community had never seen anything like it.

“Hundreds of new international students, mainly from India and China, began arriving in Sydney, N.S., last fall, and they’ve kept coming ever since.

“Their presence represents a massive shift for Cape Breton University. Once a tiny regional school imperiled by declining enrolment, CBU is now a growing centre for international education.”

In fact, no other Canadian university has crossed the 50 percent foreign-student threshold like CBU has, as even the largest foreign-student cohorts are in the 30 percent range.

The Globe and Mail reported, “The number of international students at CBU increased more than threefold in 24 months. At a time when revenues are flat elsewhere, its budget swelled by 37 percent.

“The school nearly doubled in size. It also crossed a crucial threshold: two-thirds of the university’s students, a super-majority, now hail from abroad.”

What drove the transformation?

CBU was struggling with dwindling student numbers and declining revenue in 2016. Therefore, the administration, led by president Mr. Dingwall, enlisted agents based in China, India and other countries to recruit more international students.

Their efforts worked, as over 1,100 new international students soon arrived from dozens of countries. “The new students have brought in a lot of money – the school’s budget went from $57-million to $79-million in a year.

“But there are also costs associated with growth. The cafeteria has to be expanded. In a year, more than 95 new staff have been hired, 45 faculty and others in support roles to help the international students navigate life in Canada.”

Such a huge and rapid transformation is bound to have its challenges. According to the article, “Its explosive growth triggered a local housing shortage, and forced the university to hire more staff and hunt for additional class space. The university even had to buy the town more buses.”

There are also academic integrity and learning issues to be addressed, as a number of faculty members said that some issues are unfamiliar with Canadian citation standards and need to improve their English writing skills.

That’s why the school has increased writing and research help resources, also educating students on the dangers of plagiarism in pre-departure orientation seminars. They also plan to include an academic integrity module for students to complete before accessing online course materials.

How the community was transformed

The on-campus residences were soon filled to the brim, so the university administration turned to the community for help to take in boarders.

The Globe and Mail reported, “Hundreds did, including a priest who welcomed four Indian students as rectory roommates, according to the local paper. Rents rose due to the sudden jump in demand.

“Cafeteria tables buzz in half a dozen languages. The student shop stocks popular Indian and Chinese snacks. The local cinema swapped Hollywood films for Bollywood a few days a week to boost business.

“The entire student council is made up of international students. The men’s soccer team, a campus rallying point, has risen to the top of national rankings with a team that’s almost half international students.”

Mr Dingwall said that feedback from the community has been mainly positive, despite their unfamiliarity with foreigners. “Let me put it this way: The community is asking us to do this. The community wants international students.”

However, local student Madeline Harpell, who grew up in Cape Breton, told The Globe and Mail that not all are entirely accepting of the sudden influx of international students.

She was initially shocked when she arrived for her classes last fall, as the high school she went to had very little diversity, but she adjusted quickly. She said, “It opens your eyes to new perspectives and parts of the world we wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.”

She said she has heard people complain about crowded hallways and the difficulty of finding student housing because of the influx.

She is glad that her mother was able to rent out a property to four international students at a higher rate than usual.

Harpell said, “A lot of people, it’s not that they’re close-minded, but Cape Breton is very traditional.”

As international students can work part-time in Canada, some local businesses are welcoming them with open arms.

Damien Barry, general counsel at Louisbourg Seafoods, had trouble filling physically demanding jobs in the past. He said, “Without international students this year, we would’ve been in serious trouble. They’ve been a breath of fresh air. They’re very appreciative of the opportunity.”

He also stated that he will help international students he has employed with their application for permanent residency after graduation.

The Globe and Mail reported, “All around Sydney, people talk of a community transformed. In fast-food restaurants and discount retailers, the workers are likely to be international students.

“There are bustling Asian grocery stores and new restaurants launched by some of CBU’s international grads. More than one international student says Cape Bretoners have approached them in stores to tell them how pleased they are to see immigrants in Cape Breton.”

The transformation and explosive growth of international students at Cape Breton university is reflective of a growing market in the country. International student numbers have tripled in the past decade.

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