On the morning she arrived in Halifax to study urban planning at Dalhousie University, Joyce Liu looked out the window of the airplane carrying her from Shenyang, China and marvelled at the landscape beneath her.
"I can see the ocean, I can see the forest, see the green. When the plane lands it's like landing into a forest," she said. Liu was used to a built-up landscape and a city with a more polluted environment.
She was already fascinated by the layout of different cities, but in China it was rare for her to see an airport surrounded by trees.
"So fresh, so pleasant, and then the sky is like super blue," she remembers.
Liu eventually decided she wanted to stay in Halifax. There are thousands of international students studying in Nova Scotia, and an increasing number of them are making the same choice.
After graduating, Liu began her own media production company called Lumi Studios with other planning students. She applied to immigrate through a provincial immigration stream for graduate entrepreneurs, and is waiting to find out if she will receive permanent residency.
Liu said students she knows in China are becoming interested in a city where the rent is cheaper and the landscape isn't so developed.
"Halifax is a very unique city, compared to other popular immigration cities like Toronto, Vancouver. So it's very small. It's condensed. Everything is very connected and it's walkable, it's reachable."
Retaining 10 per cent of the international students that come to the province by 2024 was a major plank in the Ivany report of 2014. According to One Nova Scotia, a group which grew out of the Ivany report, the latest numbers show 9.4 per cent of international students are staying, which it describes as a "historic high," up from about five per cent in 2014.
The number of applications is growing rapidly: in 2014, the province nominated 35 international students to immigrate through its programs. By 2018, the number of nominations swelled to 440.
Those nominations represent students near the beginning of their immigration process with the federal government, and not all applicants are successful. But the number of people who have finished the process and have received their permanent residency is growing, too.
Recent federal "landings" data show an increase in the admissions of permanent residents who had a prior study permit. For the years between 2015 and 2018, the number of permanent residents who used to be students increased from approximately 125 people to 210 people.
"I honestly cried"
Aris Hernandez is one of those people. He received his permanent residency in 2017, after coming as a student from Mexico. He says Halifax felt like a safe place with a sense of community.
"I honestly cried after signing the papers. I told the officer, thank you so much for doing this moment. This is a very special day for me. And she made me realize that this is where I belong now," he said.
Hernandez found work with EduNova, an education industry association. He is part of a program that piloted in 2016 and concentrated on retaining 50 students each year.
More than 80 per cent of the 2016 cohort is still in Nova Scotia, and the rate is higher for each year since.
The province's office of immigration has also been courting international students by visiting campuses and creating immigration streams specifically for students. Immigration minister Lena Metledge Diab believes this is the reason more students are staying.
"Since 2014 you'll find that we have developed programs that never existed before," she said.
While the numbers of students immigrating remain in the low hundreds for now, the immigration minister is satisfied that the numbers are good.
"They are educated, they have the language, and they've been in the province for a number of years so we love to have them want to make Nova Scotia their home," she said.
'I was so young at the time'
Making students feel like a welcomed part of the community is key to getting them to stay, says Christine Qin Yang, who has lived in Halifax for seven years now. Originally an international student from the coastal province of Fujian, China, she chose Nova Scotia because being near the ocean reminded her of home.
At first she found the adjustment difficult, mainly because she spoke little English and had to adjust to a new culture. She applied for permanent residency after graduation and received it. Now she works for the province and is glad she decided to immigrate.
"I think it was a brave decision for myself because I wanted to kind of prove to myself, and also to my family maybe, I can do something by myself. Because I was so young at the time."
She would like to see support programs for other people facing the same challenges she did.
"I think now there's already many great programs existing for international students to find a job and to fit into a community," she said. "I think it would be great to have these kinds of programs continue to support immigrants and international students."