Host families building lifelong relationships

April 23, 2024

With their second of two daughters leaving for university and their son graduating high school, the Clarks of Margaree Forks weren’t quite ready to be empty nesters.

When a teacher friend of theirs brought two of his Saudi Arabian students back to Canada with him in 2017, the relationship they quickly built with those two students planted a seed that has seen them host eight students themselves with the Nova Scotia International Student Program (NSISP).

Margie and Robert Clark welcomed their first international student in 2019, and to date they’ve hosted kids from Italy, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Germany and France.

“It’s hard when you have a family of five and then you’re down to two, and you have all this food left over,” Robert laughs. “It’s hard to adjust.” Sharing their home with the youngsters who are gaining valuable experiences of education and life outside their home country is very rewarding for the host family.

In 2022, with several years experience with the program, the Clarks decided they’d like to take in two students at a same time.

“We find it easier when we have two students in our home because they can hang out together,” he says. “It breaks the ice for them.”

“We became pretty close with all the kids we’ve had stay with us,” he recalls, adding that they still regularly hear from many of them.

And that’s the pay-off, as far as the Clarks are concerned.

“It’s not just the five months you’re coming for,” Margie explains. “These are lifelong relationships you’re building.”

“You’re learning about their cultures, learning about their food,” she says, noting that they quickly become a member of their family. “We love the interaction. The students are involved in everything we do.”

Robert says the students add so much to their family, recalling a French student named Elliott, who was a piano player.

“It was so nice to come home from work at the end of the day and hear the piano,” he says.

The kids that are hosted by the Clarks attend Cape Breton Highlands Education Centre/Academy in nearby Terre Noire, where there are 18 NSISP participants currently enrolled. At Dalbrae Academy in Mabou, another 10 students from the program are enrolled.

Chris Penny, manager of the NSISP for the Strait Regional Centre for Education, says there are 13 countries currently represented in Inverness County and 18 across the Strait region.

“Italy, Germany and Spain are some of the biggest countries in the program just now in Inverness County,” he adds, noting that provincially the program welcomes between 1 100 and 1 300 students from 36 to 42 countries each year.

When international students apply to come to Nova Scotia, the applications are received at NSISP’s central office in Truro and they’re divided up according to which will be the best fit.

“We see how many students we can accommodate based on numbers of host families, and we try to even out the geographical distribution of kids coming from each country.”

Chris says that while applicants don’t choose a specific location when applying, the info they provide on their application helps when deciding which region would suit them best.

“The program takes into account the students’ likes and dislikes,” he notes. “Our admissions officers read each application. If a kid wants to go skiing for example, well, there are no ski hills in the Strait Region. If they’re into debating, and we know Antigonish has a strong debating club, that could push them in that direction.”

“We can only place the number of students we have host families for. I can say we’d like to bring 1,000 students, but if we only have 100 host families, it makes it hard to place those 1,000 students.”

But Chris says the number of host families is increasing in the region, and he attributes that growing interest to the NSISP’s effort to help the visiting students integrate into the community by organizing outings for them each month.

“People are seeing the students in the community, and it sparks interest,” he says. “They know there’s a Spanish girl in their son’s or daughter’s Grade 11 physics class, and they’re interested to know about the program that brought them there. Helping the students get out there has been a really big part of what we’re trying to do to showcase the program.”

“There’s a lot of cool talents out there. International students bring a lot to a classroom. If you’re studying the economy of Latin America and you have a student from Ecuador, Colombia or Mexico in your classroom, it adds that much more to the conversation.”

One of the international students who is contributing to her school is Ahn Le Tran from Vietnam, who is enrolled at Cape Breton Highlands. She says she stumbled upon the NSISP program on Instagram, where she found photos of beaches.

“I’m a sucker for beaches and seafood, so I thought ‘why not give it a try,’” she recalls.

“The best part of my time here was when I joined the Coeur du Havre choir in Chéticamp and I started singing in French,” Ahn Le says. “I’d never been exposed to French before. And I’d never been in a concert or sung in public.” New experiences like this are a major part of what makes the program such a draw for youngsters from around the world.

For Chris, the NSISP has become an unexpected career. He’s been with the program since his grade 11 year at Riverview High in Sydney, when he and his father hosted a student from Mexico. In his graduating year, he was asked to be a student ambassador. Ambassadors are students trained by the NSISP to help participants adjust to their communities, their schools and their host families.

From there, he held various roles with the program, from airport greeter to student projects officer, before being hired into his current position in May 2022.

“I never expected this to be it, but when I became an ambassador, I loved it,” Chris recalls. “It was interesting. You meet so many new people, learn so many new cultures and customs and languages. So, I tried my best to stay involved in the program and now it’s my full-time job.”

He says it’s encouraging to see so many host families are having that same experience, as four in five are repeat participants in the program. But he says they’re always looking for more hosts.

If your family might be interested in hosting students, head to the program’s website – – where you’ll find lots of helpful information. You can also contact Chris directly at or at 902.631.1570. And maybe you’ll find the same experience that the Clarks found.