Anyone going through the international arrivals section of the Vancouver airport last weekend would have noticed a peculiar sight: a wall of parents and families holding up name cards. 

They were waiting for some of the thousands of international students, most of them in high school, from around the world, here to strengthen their English skills and learn about Canadian culture. 

"It's enjoyable. It's like having an extension to our kids," said Lynn Lenaghan, who was at the airport with her husband, Terry, to pick up a Grade 12 student from Italy who will be living with them for the next six months. 

This will be the couple's 15th year hosting high school kids in their home. 

"We started doing it years ago when our kids were young, just for the cultural experience," Lynn said.

Lynn Lenaghan

Terry and Lynn Lenaghan wait to pick up an international high school student at Vancouver International Airport. They've been taking in foreign students for 15 years. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, the number of international kindergarten to Grade 12 students coming into the province has grown by 50 per cent in the past five years, with about 20,000 of them pouring into public and private schools last year.

B.C.'s non-resident student program is lucrative, bringing an estimated $387.8 million in economic activity in 2015. Each student pays $14,000 in tuition, and an additional $900 per month to the host families for room and board.

Karen Klein, director of international education with the New Westminster School District, says her district attracts roughly 300 international students per year — about five per cent of the student body.

Klein says the extra income the students bring in goes to supporting those students through additional English language help, counselling and special events.

But the surplus goes towards enhancing existing programs for domestic students, like hot breakfasts, equipment and supplies. 

Cultural exchange

The number of spots that go to international students depends on how many domestic students register first, she said. The foreign students are then integrated into extra space in regular school classes. 

Klein says the students come to Canada primarily to learn English, but also to learn about North American culture. And, ideally, students in New Westminster then learn about the international students' culture in return.

"One of the things that we're really focusing on is diversity. We do want to have students from a variety of countries," she said. 

Most of the international students in New Westminster come from China, Klein says. But she says this year she's seen an uptick in students from Europe. 

Vancouver airport international students

The arrivals section of Vancouver International Airport was lined with people waiting to pick up international high school students last weekend. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

The program isn't without its challenges — for both the hosts and the students. 

New Westminster runs its own homestay program — some other districts contract out to private companies. Klein says about five to 10 per cent of the international students have to be placed with a new family after they arrive.

"We do our very best to find them a family that is most suited to them," she said.

Lynn Lenagham says she has had some students come to her after being in homes with locks on the fridge so they don't eat too much, or that don't keep tabs on their whereabouts. 

"There are a lots of families that do it for the wrong reasons — purely financial," she said.

'Teenagers are teenagers'

Despite the rewards, Klein and experienced host families are quick to point out that the foreign students can be a lot of work. 

"Well, teenagers are teenagers, and no matter what country they're from they still experience a lot of the same sorts of issues," Klein said.  

For Lenagham, taking in a foreign student involves preparing three meals a day for them, as part of her basic obligations.

She also picks them up and drops them off from school and the SkyTrain station near their home, and keeps a tab on their whereabouts. 

"It's a lot of work at times, especially if you've got students who don't stay in touch," she said. 

There's also the occasional cultural misunderstanding or picky eater, she says. But remarkably, after so many years, the Lenaghans say they've escaped without any major incidents.

Except for the goodbyes. 

"She cries every time," said Lynn's husband, Terry Lenaghan. 

"They become part of your family. We just said goodbye to a girl from Mexico and it was like losing a daughter."