Students in the Stay Nova Scotia program at their “graduation.”

Government agencies spent more than half a million dollars trying to keep 50 international students in the province this year.

And Wendi Zhao, for one, is grateful.

“This was a rare and awesome experience,” said Zhao, who was one of the first students recruited into the experimental Stay Nova Scotia program.

“My mentor really spent a lot of time with me, helped me understand the financial industry, reviewed my resume, helped me set career goals, practiced interviewing with me. In Stay Nova Scotia, everybody is trying to find what’s best for you.”

Two months after graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Dalhousie University, Zhao was working as an operations analyst for the hedge fund Citco. The job positions her to apply for permanent resident status in a year.

The Stay Nova Scotia program was launched last fall as an experiment to combat Nova Scotia’s poor record of keeping international students after graduation. It was funded equally by the province and by the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Atlantic Canada has been very good at attracting international students. The numbers have doubled in Nova Scotia over the last 10 years, and currently more than 11,000 international students are enrolled in high schools, language institutes, colleges and universities in the province.

Surveys consistently show that from 50 to 75 percent of international students want to settle in Canada after graduation, but only about 25 percent actually do.

The numbers are even lower in Atlantic Canada.

Wendy Luther is president of EduNova Cooperative Ltd., an umbrella group of Nova Scotia post-secondary institutions that ran the Stay Nova Scotia program. She says that historically only about three percent of international students settle in Nova Scotia long term after graduation.

The Stay Nova Scotia program was an aggressive experiment to reverse those numbers. The goal was that 80 percent of the 50 students would still be in the province one year after graduation. So far, it’s looking good. Forty-eight of the 50 were still in Nova Scotia two months after graduation, and 22 of them had found jobs in Nova Scotia, most in their field of study.

Students, mentors, Stay Nova Scotia supporters and others gathered July 7 to celebrate student success. The event highlighted students who have founded companies, discovered new interests and even started families while in the program.

List of benefits, funding for Stay Nova ScotiaStudents from 23 different countries were included in the program, which launched last October. Applications were only open for a few weeks, but more than 150 students competed for the 50 spaces.

Zhao didn’t wait for the official call for applications. She went up to Luther after hearing her speak at Dalhousie and told her that she wanted in.

“I knew right away,” she said.

“I went right up to talk to her. I knew I was going to have to get a job after graduation and I knew this would help so I applied. I feel so lucky and privileged to be one of the 50 who got in.”

Nova Scotia is aggressively courting immigration. Several influential reports and organizations have warned that the population of Nova Scotia is shrinking and aging and that it needs to recruit skilled immigrants to support the economy.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has made bolstering immigration in Atlantic Canada a priority of his federal department.

Luther said it is unclear if the Stay Nova Scotia program will be repeated. EduNova is currently looking for funding to continue the program in 2017-2018. She said is unique in Canada.

In the meantime, they have incorporated some elements of Stay Nova Scotia into a new program called Study and Stay Nova Scotia. Students from China, India and the Philippines who will begin a program at Nova Scotia Community College or a degree program at a Nova Scotia university are eligible. Student from those three countries who are already studying in a Nova Scotia high school are also eligible. So far 700 students have applied for the new program, and 68 have been accepted.

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that the province of Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency shared the cost of the Stay Nova Scotia program. A previous version of the story stated that the province funded the program.

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