Cape Breton Influencers look to create sense of belonging

Jasleen Kaur, from left, Ankit Wadhwa and Monika Sharma pose for a photograph at a Boiler Room event held recently at Daniel's Alehouse & Eatery in Sydney.  (Submitted by Ankit Wadhwa - image credit)
Jasleen Kaur, from left, Ankit Wadhwa and Monika Sharma pose for a photograph at a Boiler Room event held recently at Daniel's Alehouse & Eatery in Sydney. (Submitted by Ankit Wadhwa - image credit)

Cape Breton, N.S., is home to thousands of globe-trotting students who've come to the island to study and work.

And while blending into the local area is not always easy, two classmates from India are working to change that.

Business partners Ankit Wadhwa and Monika Sharma have launched a marketing firm known as Cape Breton Influencers.

So far, the pair have hosted events such as flash mobs, bhangra dance lessons, cultural performances and sold-out social mixers.

The events have grown from a few dozen people to more than 150 attendees.

Cape Breton Influencers
Cape Breton Influencers

'Sense of belonging'

"What we're trying to do is connect students with the local community — to provide that sense of belonging — that they belong to the community, and the community is theirs as well," said Wadhwa.

Wadhwa said bringing international students together with the local from the wider community creates cross-cultural bonds and strengthens the community as a whole.

Although its number fluctuates, there are roughly 3,500 students from more than 55 countries studying at Cape Breton University.

Wadhwa himself grew up in a small city in central India and later completed his undergraduate degree in California.

He moved to Sydney, N.S., last January where he met Sharma. The pair who shared a few classes later realized they were both outgoing and wanted to help others get out of their shell.

Deep connections

"The culture that we come from, the tradition that we come from, it takes time for people to blend in," Wadhwa said.

"Most of the events are usually university-students oriented. We never get to involve ourselves with the community, or we don't know what events are happening in the community."

Wadhwa said he and Sharma would like to see more international students forming deep connections and friendships with the locals in Cape Breton.

And he said that actually means getting to know the people who live and work there. As a bonus, Wadhwa said those relationships can help students find housing or employment or other opportunities they might not know exist.

'Settlement and retention'

Nadine Paruch, interim manager for the Cape Breton Island Centre for Immigration in Sydney, said those lasting relationships also often translate into newcomers staying in an area.

And that's something Paruch said is needed. In fact, the issue was recently highlighted in an economic development strategy that was adopted by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Experts say that without intervention, CBRM faces a declining population, shrinking revenues and increasing costs.

"It's important that these newcomers know that they're accepted, they're welcomed, they're valued," Paruch said. "It's instrumental when we think of settlement and retention."

The centre regularly asks clients whether or not they feel welcomed within the community.

"We always say there's a difference between friendly and welcoming," said Paruch. "You can smile at someone and nod your head walking down the street, or open a door — that's being friendly, but being welcoming is taking it that step further."

Paruch said responses from newcomers are largely positive. However, the centre for immigration is now working on a survey both for international graduates and students to see how many are putting down roots and what are the perceived hurdles they may have faced.

The results of that study are likely to be completed by the end of October.

Wadhwa believes if students can find a connection in Cape Breton, they'll be less likely to leave for bigger cities such as Halifax and Toronto.

"If they can find that a connection here in this community, they would like to stay here. It's a great place for everyone."