Nanaimo carries an image of a rough-and-ready, working-class port town.
It’s an image built on the backs of generations of miners, loggers and millworkers. To a certain extent, the Lucky-drinking, 4×4-driving blue-collar stereotype still rings true in some corners of the community.
But another Nanaimo is emerging, a more cosmopolitan Nanaimo of educated working professionals drawn to a West Coast lifestyle at an affordable price.
A catalyst for this is Vancouver Island University.
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-Vancouver 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,” Nilson said.
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 an undergraduate degree in child and youth care.
She started working for the Immigrant Welcome Centre in Nanaimo, helping families learn Canadian culture and law and has now completed the circle with a job at the International Education office at VIU.
Helping students make the transition are couples like Gary and Wanda Larose.
Among the 700-800 VIU homestay host families, the Laroses have been welcoming international students into their Nanaimo 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 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.
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.
The Laroses point out how most international students come from 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”