I’m breaking from my usual posts on algorithms taking over our lives to share insights from the new report by WENR: Career Prospects and Outcomes of U.S.-Educated International Students: Improving Services, Bolstering Success. If you’re new to working with international students it’s worth the full read to better understand your international students’ career ambitions. If you’re a career services director the data can help you build out a stronger international student engagement strategy and support your training efforts. I work with international students through my company GlobalMe School. I’ve got recommendations aplenty to add to this report. So fair warning: #longread ahead (or at least longer than what I normally write. I’m a proponent of lazy blogging)
Insights from the report:
A reminder that international students are not a homogenous group
“Sub-Saharan African students are most likely to cite discrimination as a challenge in U.S.-based employment. In trying to find work or internships, this was a top problem for 28 percent students from Sub-Saharan Africa, quite a bit more than the group that struggles with this the second most – MENA students (17 percent)… Racial dynamics in the U.S. likely play a role in this.”
“Latin American & Caribbean students are the most likely to look into staying in the U.S. long-term or permanently when deciding to study at a U.S. institution. Over half of all respondents consider this factor to be “very important.” Current students from this region cited most often that they were interested in using Practical and Academic Training (81 percent) and in staying in the U.S. beyond such work training opportunities (66 percent, versus 63 percent overall).”
“South and Central Asian students are the most likely to utilize the career services office on campus (73 percent). By comparison, only 59 percent of all current student respondents had used the career services office thus far.”
We tend to refer to international students as a homogenous group because they’re not American. These differences are a reminder that not all international students share the same challenges. An effective career coach is aware of these differences and offers solutions with this context in mind.
Graduate students need more soft-skills training despite having prior work experience
“Graduate students (61 percent of current students) had more full-time work experience than undergraduates (39 percent) prior to coming to the U.S.”
Prior work experience is a competitive advantage for graduate students and employers value it. Yet these same graduate students had
“more challenges in finding work than undergraduates. These included work authorization/visa status, language proficiency, and lack of professional connections.”
Despite having the experience it seems graduate students aren’t prepared to engage with employers. Students can have all the experience in the world but if they can’t talk or write about it they won’t get hired. Undergraduates have the benefit of four years to prepare for the job search. That’s four years of engaging with faculty, employers, and adapting to American culture. Many graduate students, especially ones in research and one-year degree programs with overwhelming numbers of international students, don’t have that experience.
Graduate career training programs must focus on teaching students how to build soft skills and relationships. A single networking workshop isn’t enough. Students need consistent training on telling their story to diverse people, meeting with faculty to talk about careers, and outreach to alumni for informational interviews. They also need structured activities that help them interact and collaborate with Americans to develop the language and communication skills to build a professional network.
A majority of international students want to stay past OPT
“Despite the fact that most current students said that they were not seeking to remain in the U.S. longterm, quite a few hoped to gain substantial work experience in order to help launch careers at home or abroad. Most were confident that they would do so in short order … Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) wished to extend their work experience past the term of OPT or Academic Training programs.”
This data point is key. There’s a tendency among career center leaders and deans to insist that international students pursue work in a third country since the barriers to employment are too high here. Yet a significant amount want to stay in the US beyond OPT and have the confidence that they’ll be able to do so. If a career center is putting out the message that students should look for work in a third country instead of the US, students may feel career services can’t help them and opt out of engagement entirely.
Also, many students are looking for short term opportunities. I don’t blame them. It’s a smart strategy for a global career. However, employers know this. It’s one of the top reasons employers don’t hire international students. Career services should consider non-traditional work opportunities like short term consulting projects, virtual work options, and partnerships with startups to help students find a fit. Moreover, students need coaching on how to talk to employers about their visa status and career goals. Honesty about wanting to stay in the US for a couple and leave isn’t going to go over well with employers.
European students students appear to be the most globally mobile
“Seven percent of current students prefer moving to a third country after graduation, and 12 percent of alumni are in a third country. Both are the highest compared to students from any other region.”
If your career center is going to encourage students to go to another country, European students are the best audience for those tactics. Interestingly, career outcomes are not the main motivator for European students. Instead European students “are much more interested in the experiential aspects of studying abroad than students from most other regions.” There’s opportunity for career services to partner with European students as ambassadors for their country. European students could be tapped as peer coaches to get students motivated about considering Europe a professional option. At the graduate level, European students bring valuable networks that their peers can use to find employment in a third country.
TL;DR: Engage students early, help them understand their visa options, help students build networking relationships, build relationships with employers abroad, and offer robust English and writing programs.
These recommendations are solid. Many schools are doing exactly this. But here’s the issue with these recommendations and the ones I’m going to follow up with:
According to NACE, the median non-personnel operating budget for 2016/2017 is $34,650. That’s not much to work with when you consider the costs associated with building relationships across borders, hosting international networking events or additional career fairs, and investing in platforms that connect international students to global opportunities or mentors.
Also, the median FTE for career center professional and support staff is 4 people. The median ratio of staff to students is 1 to 1,765. Can you imagine how many resume reviews you’ll need to complete with that ratio?
(Luckily only 74% of students use resume services.)
The takeaway: It’s hard to launch new solutions to international student challenges when your center is understaffed and underfunded. I’ve talked to colleagues who work in two-person departments; implementing a global employer engagement strategy or developing new training programs to improve networking skills isn’t feasible. They’re just trying to stay above water to meet student needs. Building domestic employer relationships and endless resume and cover letter reviews take priority. I know peers who are working hard to make change happen for international students. Some have institutional backing, others are just incredibly resourceful and creative.
Until the budget guardians start recognizing the strategic importance of career services in higher education and increasing funding, I’m not confident large scale changes that improve outcomes for international students will happen. That’s not fun to write. I spent a couple years on the career services and international education conference circuit speaking on how to improve international student career outcomes. Despite the clever work being done by career coaches and international student services staff, the overwhelming theme of conversations has been: I wish the administration supported and funded our efforts.
I hope that changes, I really do. It’s not getting any easier for international students in the US. Creative solutions are needed. And so is funding.
While I’m skeptical of large scale change that doesn’t mean there aren’t additional opportunities to improve international student outcomes. So for all the ambitious career staff who are committed to improving international student career outcomes, here are a 9 more recommendations.
Create a YouTube video or visual explainer about work authorization options
Visa information in complex. It’s painful to read. I’ve been begging immigration lawyers to make an explainer video on the alphabet soup or the H1B process so I could share it with my students. Maybe your department works with visual design students. This would be a fabulous project for their portfolio. The video could be used by admissions as a talking point, a training resource for new career coaches, and for all your new international students. If a video isn’t an option, create a visual that better explains visa options for you and employers. Hired.com’s H1B Guide to Hiring Global Talent is a model:
Listen to input from international students
Career centers can’t change the H1B visa situation. However they can change how they help international students prepare to engage with employers in the US and abroad. Relying on traditional career training models isn’t going to improve international student career outcomes. Instead, engage international students and get their ideas and feedback to improve your offerings. Use tactics from design thinking to reimagine how you deliver career services. Conduct ethnographic interviews with international students to see things from their perspective.
Career center staff who work with international students daily – from admins to coordinators to coaches – likely have ideas too. If you’re a manager here’s your reminder to checkin with them.
Hire international professionals
Hire international professionals who represent countries or speak the languages of dominant international student populations. They bring new perspectives on learning and student engagement. They can also build employer relationships in their home country and region. As a bonus, hire an international student alum from your school. If you aren’t in charge of hiring recommend your best international students for work-study positions in your office. Or encourage your graduating international students with a passion for student services to apply for your centers’ open positions.
Get out of the office
Relationship building across cultures is a high touch process. As Americans running career services centers we tend to operate on a transactional basis.
Student seeks out career advice.
Student shows up for assigned coaching appointment.
Student gets info.
Student does what is required.
We also expect all students to follow that pattern. We blame students when they break from that pattern: “Why don’t they come visit us? DON’T THEY KNOW THEIR FUTURE IS AT STAKE!” (ok that last sentence is dramatized but we’re all thinking it). But not all cultures are help seeking. I’m generalizing here but in some cultures it’s not normal to seek out a stranger and tell them what you need. Instead, Americans need to adjust their behavior and engage students outside the office. Attend club and cultural events, food gatherings, international student services events, or set up a drop in table in high traffic areas. Be seen and get to know more about students lives not just their job search status. Build relationships with students outside the office and you’ll see engagement improve.
Invest in cross cultural training
Understanding your cultural bias and cross-cultural communication style is imperative when working with international students. Use your campus resources to find someone who can give a workshop on cross-cultural communication to your team. Graduate students in international education, languages, or even your international office might help. Chances are someone has a background in cross cultural communication and can give you a primer.
Two books that helped me immensely in my role as an international student career coach: Global Dexterity by Andy Molinksy and The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. Global Dexterity helped me better frame the challenges international students face in the job search. The Culture Map helped me understand my own cultural bias. Prof Meyer’s video on high context vs low context communication blew my mind. It also helped me adapt my communication style in coaching and workshops:
If you’ve ever wondered why some international students don’t answer your questions in a workshop, this talk will give you perspective.
Provide talking points for admissions
Partner with international admissions to help set incoming students expectations. Ask admissions what questions are top of mind for international students about careers and provide answers. Or create a video for your career website that addresses these questions.
Host a webinar to set expectations for incoming international students
Host a “Ask career services” webinar for incoming students. This builds relationships with new students while breaking down traditional institutional silos. Getting students thinking about the job search before they arrive sets expectations and creates a foundation for their search strategy. It also gets them engaged early.
Alternatively, you can hire me to do that for you. I host them regularly:
Track your international alumni
Alumni affairs isn’t the best at transparency or sharing alumni information. If you’re not able to get complete data on international student alumni, make your own. Get a list of the last 5 years of international students. Then search LinkedIn for their location, company, and title. It’s a big project that’s perfect for a student worker or intern. That list is gold. It’s the starting point for any global employer engagement, as sourcing opportunities through engaged alumni is much easier than cold calling.
Then go beyond a spreadsheet and transform the list into an interactive visualization. It helps students to visualize where your alumni are in the world. It helps students learn about companies outside of the US. Higheredme.com uses alumni mapping for international student recruiting, but the effect is the same. You can see where your alumni are and dive into the data. Use Tableau to map your alumni. Incorporate this map into workshops on research and networking. Make it an interactive exploratory tool that’s prominent your students. Make it the basis for your virtual mentoring program. Build it and create international engagement magic for all your stakeholders.
Ask the budget gods for funding to build a course
As we tell our students: it doesn’t hurt to ask. One workshop for international students on networking or the international student job search isn’t enough. Nor is a session during orientation where they are already overwhelmed with information, logins and passwords, platforms, learning in a foreign language, new cities, strange academic requirements, new friends and parties, stupid Comcast, transportation, housing, grocery stores with foreign foods, small talk, registration and major requirements, visa compliance, bank accounts, Snapchat/WeChat/WhatsApp, homesickness, cultural adjustment, and all the other basics of navigating life in a foreign country. Instead students need a career course for credit. They need structure and assignments to practice their new skills. The content needs to be heavy on practical exercises like email writing and professional conversation skills, and less on career development theory. It also needs to be mandatory so it takes priority over all the other priorities.
Make the business case to your department to fund and build a one credit course. Include American students – they need training too. It’ll break down silos between international and American students and teach American students the soft skills they also need in the job search.
I get asked weekly for advice on international student career outcomes, so I’m putting it all out here. These recommendations along with the ones from WENR report are enough to keep career services busy for a while.