Nova Scotia·Global Studies

These students are a world away from home, but have found another in Cape Breton

There are currently more than 2,600 international students from 41 countries enrolled at Cape Breton University. We asked a few of them how they ended up in Cape Breton, and how they're getting along.

CBU's international students explain why they want to get a Canadian education

Indian students Samual Shaji, Anu Mariam Varghese, Tintu Sebastian, Divya Balakrishnan Nair, Jaya Kaushik and Gurjot Singh in the Multicultural Hub room at CBU. (Holly Conners/CBC)

Global Studies is a CBC series exploring how the influx of international students at Cape Breton University is transforming the school and the community.

They're thousands of kilometres from home, in the depth of a cold Canadian winter, but Cape Breton University's international students are quick to speak of their warm reception on the island.

"I'm so happy," said Divya Balakrishnan Nair, who arrived in Cape Breton from Kerala, India, in December.

"Canadian peoples, they are so welcoming. When I'm going out, they are wishing us a good morning, and they are saying hi. I think that's pretty cool."

CBU Indian student Divya Balakrishnan Nair. (Holly Conners/CBC)

Balakrishnan Nair is one of the 2,643 international students from 41 countries who now make up more than half of CBU's student body. The majority of them come from India.

For many, the journey started with an interest in Canada.

"There was a brain drain from India to U.S. earlier," said Indian student Jaya Kaushik. "But now it's been shifting more towards Canada."

Why they chose Cape Breton

"One of the prime reasons is that Canada is a very welcoming country," she said. "It's known for its multiculturalism and its welcoming nature."

That contrasts with the face that some of Canada's key competitors have been putting forward in recent years.

"America and Australia and U.K. were really popular in foreign education for a long time," said student Samual Shaji, also from India. "And those countries' governments changed policies, started more secular, conservative kind of attitudes. So the people were not feeling safe. Whereas, in the case of Canada, Canada welcomes everyone. And you can live in Canada as who you are."

Samual Shaji, from India, is the co-ordinator of the Multicultural Hub at the CBU Student's Union. (Holly Conners/CBC)

Why so many students have landed at CBU in particular has to do with a variety of factors. Some say they were influenced by reports from friends already studying in Cape Breton. Others say they came for a specific program, with commerce and business being the number one draw, according to a study commissioned by the Council of Atlantic Ministers for Education last year. For students like Shaji, the tuition fees and the lower cost of living played a role. 

"It's a small university, and I was looking into a university degree at an affordable expense," said Shaji. "And as the university is small, and the community is small, the engagement that you will have with the professors and the community will be really high."

Working with recruiters

Most students worked through a recruiting agent, either in their home country or abroad, who facilitates the admissions and visa process for a fee.

And while students seem largely pleased with the Canadian welcome and educational experience they've received, others say not everything has been as advertised.

"The agent told me that here we will get lots of part-time jobs," said Balakrishnan Nair. But there's been lots of competition.

The lack of public transit in the regional municipality has also posed an issue, as has been finding affordable housing near campus.

I love hiking, fishing, camping, and making new friends. So this place actually has all kinds of different cultures.- Chinese student  Baosheng  Cai

And then there's the loneliness. For Tintu Sebastian, who arrived last month, it's the first time living away from her family in India.

"I'm finding it a little hard to adjust," she said, "a little bit homesick ... If you have time to think about all that, you do get depressed."

Homesickness cure

For Kaushik, the remedy has been to get involved on campus and to mingle with other students.

"When you talk to people from other communities, like someone from Africa, someone from Cape Breton itself, it feels good, because you have a shared experience," said Kaushik.

Indeed, the increasingly multicultural makeup of CBU has been part of the attraction for some students.

Chinese student Baosheng Cai was studying in the United States when she first heard about the "sightseeing island."

"Which is perfect for me," said Cai. "I love hiking, fishing, camping, and making new friends. So this place actually has all kinds of different cultures."

Chinese students Baosheng Cai and Chenxi He in CBU's Great Hall. (Holly Conners/CBC )

One thing Cape Breton could improve on, she said, is to better promote its own cultural assets — the Celtic Colours festival, for example.

"That is really cool ...They have all kind of different shows, like dancing, singing, musical instrument performances. But not many of my friends ... know it."

She also suggests more direct marketing to international students.

"Because the winter is six months long and we don't have much to do," she said. "We want to experience what is special about Cape Breton."

About the Author

Holly Conners is a reporter and current affairs producer who has been with CBC Cape Breton since 1998. Contact her at holly.conners@cbc.ca.