It all started with a mom’s “what are you going to do with your life?”
It was 2002 and 17-year-old Miguel Meza was graduating from his high school in Campeche, Mexico with no real plan for the future. He couldn’t imagine he would become a devoted Bluenoser and one day Mexico would feel foreign.
Staring down her son’s graduation, Meza’s mom attended a university fair and learned about a new international-student program in Nova Scotia. “She told me if you don’t know what to do with your life, are you interested in learning English?” he recalls. “The town where I’m from is a sister city of Halifax, we’re both port cities. It’s very similar to Halifax and that’s how they sold it to me: it wouldn’t be a shock with the culture.”
He ended up in New Glasgow.
Meza was matched with a home family, Paul and Donna MacIntyre, who had three teens around Meza’s age. “They tried to put me in a town where there weren’t many Spanish speaking people so I wouldn’t talk Spanish and I was forced to practice my English,” Meza says.
The only other Spanish speaker Meza knew was in Stellarton. While he landed in the province feeling somewhat confident with his English skills, he soon realized he didn’t know anywhere near enough. “I wanted to make friends but at the same time I didn’t want to embarrass myself and I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” he says.
He became a loner, which was a problem when he was known as “The Mexican Kid” and everyone wanted to talk to him. “I realized it’s do or die so it made sense for me to try and it was the only way for me to learn,” he says.
But everyone was friendly and spoke with their hands. It was a surprise: Meza thought he would be taking a course in English not that all his classes would be in English. It was tough, but he says he kept up with his grades. Watching movies with subtitles helped a lot.
Beyond the language barrier there was the weather issue. Soon after he arrived, he told his host family he was cold and they took him to the mall to buy a sweater. That was in August.
“By the time winter came around I was pretty cold but I was loving it because I had never seen the snow before and that was amazing,” he says. “It took me a few years to get over how beautiful the snow is.”
It was a learning curve for the locals as well. One day Meza was summoned to the principal’s office and was told there was a woman outside who was clearly lost, but since she spoke “Mexican” they couldn’t understand her.
“I said I’ll see what I can do so I talked to this lady but she wasn’t even speaking Spanish, she was speaking Portuguese,” Meza says, adding he was able to help because the languages are similar.
By the time his second high-school graduation came around, this time a Canadian one, Meza was comfortable with English and had a girlfriend he didn’t want to leave. He convinced his parents to let him study human resources and marketing at Saint Mary’s University. With a degree in hand, Meza was working at a Halifax gas station.
A woman who bought coffee there every day offered him a job interview at her human-relations company, ADP, in Dartmouth. She thought he would be an asset to the firm because of their many international clients. Meza landed the job and hasn’t looked back. He has since convinced his older sister to move to Halifax and she works for the same company.
Earlier this spring, the 30-year-old traveled home to Mexico to get married (not to the high-school sweetheart). He says every time he heads south, he misses Halifax.
“I feel Halifax is my home now,” he says. “Even when I go to Mexico for a bit I feel out of place there and I can’t wait to go back home. I just love the city in general. You have the ocean, and if you want to go snowboarding after work, you can do that and it’s only 30 minutes. You can go shopping and there’s all the bars and restaurants, it’s quite a fun city.”
Some friends back in Mexico are proud, and others are proud and envious, Meza says. His family is nothing but happy with his choice to live in Canada. “Obviously they were sad they didn’t get to see me as much but they’re still really proud I made that decision,” he says. Meza was one of the first to sign up for the International Student Program, but a flood of teens eager to learn in Nova Scotia has since followed him.
And while they don’t keep track of the numbers, Andrea Ashton with the Nova Scotia International Student program says many of the foreign high school students stay on for university.
“It’s the goal: they’re here and we would love for them to stay,” she says. “I mean, you never know what they’re going to do with themselves after they graduate. When these kids come here you don’t know if they’re going be the next owner of a big company in another country or what’s going to happen.”
The program started from an idea in 1996. Members of three school boards thought Nova Scotian high school students would benefit from having international students attend class with them. A few years on, all the school boards saw the merits and joined in.
The first countries they targeted were Brazil and Mexico because other international student programs were going after Asia, Ashton says. In the beginning, they sent representatives to school fairs in other countries but now they have international agencies to promote the program. This past school year, 1,200 students from 31 countries are studying across the province in junior and high schools. The program has caps on the number of students from each country, but last year Brazil was the top country followed by China, Germany, Japan and Colombia.
For foreign students to attend school for a full year costs $16,000, which includes tuition, home stay, and health insurance.