Easing the transition to Halifax for international students

Deepak Sharma and Jass Singh of Univfax interviewed by Priya Sam. Photo: CTV Atlantic

It was the first time Jass Singh had ever seen snow, and there was a lot of it. He remembers landing in Halifax in January 2015. It was also 40 degrees colder than it was in his hometown of New Delhi, India.
“There was a snowstorm,” he recalls. “I was stuck at the airport for three or four hours.” He was stranded and alone. He didn’t know anyone in Halifax or even how far the city was from the airport.
His friend, classmate, and now business partner, Deepak Sharma, had a similar experience even though he had friends in Halifax. “There was a snowstorm, so my friend couldn’t pick me up at the airport,” Sharma says.
Their experiences left them wanting to help other international students make an easier transition to life in Halifax. They founded Univfax, a name they came up with to represent “Universities of Halifax.”
“It’s a one-stop web-portal solution, we provide a mix of services,” says Singh. “It starts from providing accommodation before you even land in Halifax.”
Over the past year, the idea has grown from a simple website helping a few people to a network of people and businesses serving hundreds of international students.
Sharma officially started working on developing Univfax in the summer of 2015. He had just finished the first semester of his computer-engineering degree and was working a security job, so he had a lot of free time on his hands.
“I used to sit there for 10 to 12 hours and watch movies, and talk to my friends and family in India,” he says.
At that time, he was getting messages from friends, and friends of friends, who were planning to study in Canada and asking him for advice and tips. He also started talking to other international students about their experiences coming to Halifax and realized that the move was hard everyone in one way or another.
“I realized this is a big issue and that we had to solve this problem,” says Sharma. “I didn’t want anyone else to face what I faced. So, I thought why not make a website and make a system where students can get furniture, apartments, a cab from the airport—these basic things.”
He made a rough draft of a site and asked other international students for feedback. That was October 2015. “I think I helped 10 to 12 people who were coming that January,” says Sharma. “So, not too many, but I learned from it.”
Then he started getting more requests and realized he couldn’t do it alone anymore.
He and Singh were in the same program at Dalhousie and were already friends. Singh had experience working with the Dalhousie International Students Association (DISA) and also a background in business, so Sharma approached him and they started working together in February.
“We were doing the same thing but on different platforms,” says Singh.
Singh had worked with students from several different countries through DISA and said they all had the same concerns: “How to get a taxi, how far is the airport from Halifax, is there an Asian grocery store, etc…” Sharma and Singh joined forces and registered the company in March. “Then we really picked up the pace in July,” says Sharma.
The first challenge they tackled was how to make it easier and cheaper for students to find housing.
When Singh arrived, he stayed with someone he knew in residence for the first few days because he didn’t have a place to live. He then spent several days looking for an apartment but most places wanted a PR card or a work permit; he had neither. Most landlords didn’t recognize student visas and wanted several months’ rent up front. He was frustrated and stressed out until his new roommate’s second cousin agreed to co-sign a lease for them.
Hoping to help make the process easier for new students, they approached different apartment building owners to ask if they were interested in partnering with Univfax to offer housing to international students.
“We went to 15 to 20 different properties,” says Singh. “For every apartment on our website, there is some kind of incentive. Either the first month is free or there is no security deposit or there’s a 15-per-cent discount.”
It also saves students the hassle and expense of having to stay in hotels when they first arrive.
“So, instead of getting temporary accommodation in Halifax for a few weeks and then starting to find an apartment, we started this so you can find accommodation before you come online,” explains Singh.
Another service they offer is support through their buddy system.
“Anyone who is coming from any country in the world to Halifax can go on our website and choose a buddy,” says Sharma. “That buddy will come to the airport and pick you up and show you your apartment.”
The buddy will also show the new student how to get a Social Insurance Number, set up a bank account, and find necessary services like the closest grocery store and bus stop.
They have buddies from several different countries so new students can connect with someone from their home country or someone who speaks the same language.
As September approached, traffic on the Univfax website soared as the number of people using their services jumped to more that 200; a big increase from the dozen students Sharma helped just six months earlier.
And while the biggest influx of students is in September, Singh and Sharma agree that students often need more help when they’re arriving in January.
“Temperatures at that time in India, Pakistan, the Middle East are around 25 or 30 degrees Celsius,” says Singh. It’s a big difference from the sub-zero temperatures in Halifax at that time of year, so part of what they do is advise students about what they’ll need to cope with cold weather.
“We have already started to expand,” says Sharma. “We have a girl working with us from Cape Breton University…and we want to expand to other universities in Atlantic Canada.”
They’re also working to develop a Univfax discount card, which will offer cheaper prices to international students at some restaurants and local businesses.
Sharma recently quit his job as a security officer to focus on Univfax full-time but the pair is still looking for investors and ways to make Univfax profitable. While their goal is to turn this endeavor into full-time work, their philosophy is about much more than profits.
“I think this is my final vision, that there’s a big community where everyone is helping each other,” says Sharma.
CORRECTION: Due to an incorrect photo caption, a man was incorrectly identified as Jass Singh in the print edition of this story. The photo and caption above are correct.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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