In international education circles, we champion the benefits of international students at our institutions. We promote students’ ability to adapt to new mindsets and behaviors that challenge cultural assumptions, improving their communication skills for a future of working globally. Yet little has been said about how student affairs professionals adapt when working with international students.
Working in international student career coaching, I help international students navigate the U.S. job search. It’s a daily exercise in active listening and perspective shifting. It’s ridiculously fun and challenging at once. To succeed I’ve had to adapt my advising approach, from mindset to communication style. I’ve embraced empathy and curiosity. Empathy helps me better understand student motivations and backgrounds. Curiosity drives me to learn about cultural barriers in the job search. By combining the two I’ve gained insights that challenge my assumptions. As an American I can’t assume I know what it’s like for international students searching for jobs in the U.S. But I can try to understand.
The situation for international students seeking work in the U.S. is daunting.
To land a job in the U.S., international students need to first find an employer who is willing to sponsor. Once they secure the job, they cross their fingers and hope the employer secures the H1-B visa during the lottery. If they don’t, they’re required to leave the U.S. and often lose their jobs. In 2015, only 35% of employers secured the H1-B visa in the government-run lottery. Even more challenging, international students have to adapt to a job search culture that prizes confidence, extroversion, individualism, and perfection – characteristics which are the opposite of cultural norms in some countries.
Reactions to international students who seek jobs in the U.S. can be harsh. I’ve heard administrators across institutions remark that students should just return home to find work. It seems like an easy solution. But assuming students can easily return home to work reflects a lack of understanding about international student needs and lives.
Returning home isn’t always an option. Debt is one reason. Americans have normalized the staggering amount of student loans we take out for education. International students are coming from cultures where such debt loads are uncommon. Many come from countries where salaries aren’t equal to the U.S., so they can’t pay off their debt. Sometimes employers outside the U.S. consider students overqualified at home.
Family pressures also factors into the decision. A female student who returns home may have pressure to marry instead of pursuing her career dreams. A gay student may be persecuted when they return home. I’ve heard all of these reasons (and more) during advising sessions. These perspectives have since challenged my assumptions and helped me adapt my career coaching style.
As student affairs professionals we need to constantly adapt when working with international students, especially when it comes to career coaching.
To adapt, think like a cultural anthropologist. Seek to understand the international student population. Remember that international students are not a homogeneous group, no matter how much we refer to them as a single group. Try in-depth interviews with students over surveys to gain deeper insights on what’s working and what isn’t. Share ideas with colleagues, across departments and beyond your institutions.
After getting perspective, take their feedback and get creative to make change happen. Involve students and international alumni in the process. Try new ideas for advising and events. Sometimes it’s as simple as having coffee or tea breaks instead of formal advising sessions in your office. Other times it’s reworking traditional workshop content so it resonates with an international audience. Above all, be curious about behaviors that are outside American norms. Challenge the assumption that we always know what’s best for international students.
By adapting, we grow personally and professionally. We’re exposed to new perspectives which then feed creativity. We learn interpersonal communication skills that help us work with people from diverse backgrounds, now and in the future. And we get to know a group of fascinating students whose stories and big dreams enrich our jobs daily.
This post is part of our #SAinternational series. We will hear from #SApros who work in international student related services. We’ll also hear from those those who have had the fortunate opportunity to work overseas or have a global perspective to higher education. For more info, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series.
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