There is an image Vancouver Island carries north of the Malahat, the image of a rough-and-ready, working-class collection of communities.
It’s an image built on the backs of generations of miners, loggers and millworkers. And, to a certain extent, the Lucky-drinking, 4×4-driving blue-collar stereotype still rings true in some corners of the region.
But there is another version of the Island emerging north of the Malahat, a more cosmopolitan Island populated by educated working professionals drawn to a West Coast lifestyle at an affordable price.
And a major catalyst for this MEC-loving, slow-food munching, micro-brew quaffing, hipster-friendly Island is Vancouver Island University.
Today the Black Press launches a series on the three faces of VIU and the impact it is having on the social and economic landscape of our communities.
PART I: The international student
In light of the above, it probably would have been appropriate to ask Aamera Jiwaji if ice-cold six-packs and off-road pothole jumping occupied much of her spare time.
But really, she would be defying stereotypes regardless of her answer.
Jiwaji is not some fresh-faced recent mid-Island high school graduate seeking close-to-home post-secondary accreditation — the image that probably typified Vancouver Island University in the days it was known as Malaspina College.
Nor does she fit the international student caricature of sheltered foreign nebbish struggling with North American customs and style while painfully learning English as part of a safe overseas adventure.
Poised and articulate while delivering considered answers in impeccable English, Jiwaji is a Kenyan writer and MBA candidate with all the polished professionalism and life opportunity that resume implies.
With a world of choices available, she decided to finish her MBA at VIU.
“It was the best program I could find,” she said.
International students come to VIU from many places for many reasons. But they are coming in droves.
According to university president Ralph Nilson, international students make up about 17 per cent of the university’s student population. More than 2,000 full- and part-time students currently attend the school from 88 different countries, including Morocco, Japan, Korea, Germany, Panama, Chile and Peru. They are drawn by learning opportunities, enhanced language programs and the chance to make connections and put down roots.
“We recruit from all over the world,” Nilson said. “They come here for the quality of education, but also for the quality of the environment. We have a very strong support system.”
Rebecca Lin can attest to that first-hand. She arrived from Taiwan in 1995 as a mature student looking to master English as a second language. She was planning to stay a year. Then she met the man who eventually became her husband.
After regrouping to Taiwan to make some money, she returned, married, had a kid and eventually earned a BA in child and youth care.
She started working for the Immigrant Welcome Centre in Nanaimo, helping families learn Canadian culture and Canadian law and has now completed the circle with a job at the International Education office at VIU.
She said VIU has a lot to offer international students.
“The environment here is not so intense; you can have a work/life balance that is more healthier for your mind and body,” Lin said. “VIU provides a very good learning environment. The education system is more flexible here. Here teachers let you think.”
Even with caring teachers, that doesn’t mean the transition is always easy. Language can be a big issue. Food is another. Adapting to everyday routines can also cause problems and then there is the issue of new living quarters, often in a family home from a foreign culture.
“I cried the first semester a lot. I really had a hard time,” Lin said.
Helping students make the transition are couples like Nanaimo’s Gary and Wanda Larose.
Among the 700-800 VIU homestay host families, the Laroses have been welcoming international students into their home for more than 20 years.
They originally thought the experience might be a good one for their then-school-age kids. They were right, but it went beyond that.
Their first student guest — Tomosho Ishikawa from Japan — became like part of the family. They shared their knowledge of the Island, learned about Japan, and remain in close contact.
Not every subsequent student clicked as well as Ishikawa, but each has offered a new opportunity for personal knowledge and growth.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times the endless conversations we had,” Wanda said.
Nilson calls this kitchen table diplomacy. He says it is opening Vancouver Island’s eyes to a wider global community and giving residents a different perspective on the world.
“Families in Nanaimo have learned about the world in a way they never could from watching the news or reading the newspaper,” he said.
At the same time, it is also opening a series of first-hand conduits into Vancouver Island life for places like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
And those conduits are quietly creating significant economic benefits for the local community.
According to an economic impact study commissioned for VIU, a Nanaimo resident makes an average income of $37,000, which he or she typically rolls back into the local economy. Paying triple the tuition of a domestic student while staying in local rooms and shopping in local stores, an average international student injects slightly more than that into the economy and there are hundreds of them here at any given time.
Vancouver Island University is one of the central Island’s largest employers and the international student program allows that to happen.
“It is an economic driver for this community and I don’t think the community realizes how much,” Nilson said. “People are coming from all over the world.”
The Laroses point out how most international students come from an affluent backgrounds with the lifestyle expectations that go with that.
“They like to live in apartments and eat out in restaurants, buy expensive cars and expensive clothes,” Lin agreed. “They spend lots of money.”
One difference she has noticed with today’s students is that they are coming with more advanced education goals and an eye on potentially immigrating to Canada.
“Twenty years ago most were going home. Now they want to stay because they can make more money,” she said.
Jiwaji is one who is hoping to stay. She is networking hard — VIU’s internship program was part of its draw — to make the career connections necessary for that to happen.
“The Island is my preference.” she said.
Gary Larose said his homestay guests almost universally cite the lack of smog and the abundance of nature as things things that mark the Island, as well as the personal freedom and space from the rat race. He hopes he and other families have created a welcoming environment that has added to that experience.
“We were nervous about having a new person come into our house,” he said. “Think about them. It might be their first big adventure.”
Snuneymuxw — which has been anglicized to Nanaimo — means welcoming place in the native Hul’qumi’num language. Nilson said the next step in growing the welcome is providing international students with more opportunities to stay and build careers right here.
“If the jobs were here, they would. The big challenge is what are we doing to ensure that these people are involved in the economy?”
In the meantime, he believes this mutually beneficial relationship can continue to grow.
“For a community like Nanaimo it has been a real benefit. We are continuing to be a welcoming place.”
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