Tracey Novak is in Mexico, but she's not there for the sun, surf and sand that attracts most winter-weary Manitobans there in February.
She's spending most of her time in a booth recruiting for a booming industry that contributes more than $154 million to the Manitoba economy every year and helps support 1,640 jobs.
Novak is part of a group of representatives from Manitoba educational institutions taking part in the Imagine Studying in Canada Fair. They are there to convince students keen on studying in Canada to make Manitoba their destination.
Despite the fact Winnipeg can be about 60 degrees colder than Mexico during parts of the school year, enticing Mexican students to Manitoba is a growth industry.
In 2011, there were 5,780 international students studying in Manitoba, more than double the number in 2000.
"They are actually looking for places like Winnipeg, smaller, easier to handle, than a place like Vancouver and Toronto. Families know more about what they want -- they know more about sending their children away for high school," Novak said. "It's more common now."
Novak, the assistant director of international education for Pembina Trails -- the first public school division in the province to establish an international student program 18 years ago -- has been recruiting students for schools in Winnipeg for 12 years. After five years of teaching in Mexico City, she is fluent in Spanish. Helping her on the tour was Mario Tejada, a former Vincent Massey Collegiate and University of Manitoba student who enthusiastically sings the praises of studying in Winnipeg based on first-hand experience. Despite having to point out Winnipeg on the map numerous times and calming fears about the winter weather, Novak finds each time she returns to events such as this, more people are willing to hear her out.
Nigel Dixon, executive director of English-language programs at the University of Winnipeg, where over 1,000 international students are enrolled in English-language, undergraduate and graduate-degree programs, doesn't see the energy and resources being put into recruiting international students diminishing any time soon. There's just too much at stake financially.
"It would be noticed very quickly if the number of international students dropped," said Dixon, whose recent recruitment forays included trips to Brazil, India, Japan and Korea.
Canadian embassies across the globe sponsor a number of educational fairs each year. The 2013 fair in Mexico had more than 60 institutions taking part and, according to embassy numbers, close to 7,400 people attended the February event.
The Government of Manitoba was also active at the fair, with its own booth manned by Cheryl Prokopanko, director of the International Education Branch (IEB), and employees from BMT Global Consulting, who represent Manitoba Trade and Industry as well as IEB in Mexico. Two breakfast meetings with educational and industry representatives were also organized for the benefit of Manitoba participants.
In addition to Pembina Trails, representatives from the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg, Université de Saint-Boniface, Red River College, the Pembina Trails School Division, Balmoral Hall and Heartland International English School also participated in the 10-day tour that stopped in Guadalajara, León, Querétaro and Mexico City.
Prokopanko came away impressed by the willingness of the Manitoba institutions to work together to promote the province as a whole.
"I noticed representatives from Manitoba institutions escorting clients to the booths of other Manitoba institutions if they realized it was a better fit for the client," said Prokopanko. "That was a very professional approach."
The institutions participating in the Imagine Studying in Canada Fair in Mexico are also members of the Manitoba Council for International Education (MCIE), a not-for-profit organization of 27 public and private educational institutions that offer international education programs. The MCIE has been in existence since 2000 and works closely with the Manitoba government to promote international education abroad. Members share resources and information and engage in professional-development sessions while also collaborating on marketing initiatives, such as the trip to Mexico.
Carmelle Mulaire, student recruitment and student housing manager for the Université de Saint-Boniface, decided to take the plunge in the Mexican market after hearing about interest in French-language programming from MCIE members who attended last year's fair. Mulaire's markets are obviously a little different from the English-language institutions in the province, and she's had to work hard at dispelling the myth that quality French-language programs (and universities for that matter) exist outside of Quebec, but she's found co-operating with other Manitoba institutions beneficial.
This summer the University of Manitoba and Université de Saint-Boniface are offering a joint intensive French/intensive English program. And Mulaire has partnered with University of Manitoba representatives in Brazil and Mexico to promote the program -- and each other's institutions.
"Using creativity to promote Manitoba is very important," offered Mulaire. "We still have to be better known for our educational opportunities in the province. I think we are on the right road to doing that."
Colin Fraser is the marketing and recruitment co-ordinator for English-language studies and international programs at the University of Manitoba.