By Dr Luciana Iwasa, Careers Adviser, University College Birmingham
As a former international student, I understand how overwhelming it can be to move to a different country to study at HE level. The whole education system is different. The expectations are different.
At university you will be expected to write academic assignments, participate in discussions and group activities, deliver presentations, etc. This already sounds nerve wracking in our native language. Would you imagine in a different one?
However, this is also all exciting. Living and studying in a different country is a unique opportunity that you are in a very fortunate position to experience. Stepping out from your comfort zone can make you grow and develop a variety of skills in a short period of time. It will help you to become more adaptable and understand a different culture. In a globalised world, this will be an invaluable asset that will help you to stand out from the crowd.
My student experience
When I signed up to do a PhD in law at Aston Business School, I did not know what to expect. I did my law degree in Brazil and worked as a lawyer there before moving to the UK accompanying my husband. Changing my mindset to the UK system and writing an 80,000 words thesis in a foreign language seemed a mountain to climb. I somehow felt like an underdog in comparison with my local classmates; after all, they were used to the education system here and language was not a problem to them, but this also gave me the motivation to prove myself and show that I could be as successful and competitive as they were. My hard work and determination paid off as I was the only student in my cohort who managed to complete the thesis on time and pass the viva with no corrections (by the way I didn’t recourse to any proofreading service). In the end, I realised that learning English as a second language was actually an advantage as I learnt the language through grammar and this helped me to write formally. So, don’t make assumptions about being an international student and play to your strengths.
Getting working experience is a MUST
Academic English vs Professional English
From my experience, many international students miss the opportunity to develop their language skills because they’ve got used to staying with colleagues and friends who came from the same country. I understand that this is natural and that you want to be around people who share the same interests, culture and language, but, at the end of the day, you came to the UK to experience a different country and you should immerse yourself in this new environment.
When I first moved to the UK, I started undertaking English classes to improve my confidence in the language and to prepare me to the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) exam. I thought that having the highest Cambridge English qualification would mean that I was fully prepared to work and study at any level in the UK. I was wrong. As soon as I started working at Aston University, I realised that the formal English that I learnt in the classroom was different from the professional language and jargons that many people use in the work environment. That is why I cannot emphasise enough the importance of doing ANY work while you are in the UK. It is not only because of the language, but you will also learn how to behave and interact with other people in a professional setting. It will help you to network and meet people who will be open to teach you how things work here. Do not underestimate the importance of networking. This may be of invaluable help if you decide to stay in the country after you complete your studies.
Should study be your only priority?
Many international students come to the UK and focus on studying and getting good grades. For this reason, unless they have a compulsory placement as part of the course, looking for a work experience is not a priority. Some students have at the back of their minds that they will look for something IF they have some spare time. However, it is most likely that they will never find such free time and will end up leaving only with an academic qualification.
Please don’t get me wrong. Studying IS the main reason why you came to this country but getting work experience should also be one of your main objectives. The lack of experience can hinder your chances of landing some competitive jobs. There are sought-after skills by employers that are not taught in the classroom such as leadership, dependability, adaptability and people skills. This means that graduating with a first-class honours alone may not secure you a job.
Stepping out of your comfort zone
I understand that one of the main reasons why some students would rather only study instead of seeking other opportunities would be the prospect of leaving their comfort zone. Attending classes, staying in the university bubble (where they are cared for) and interacting with their peers is not as daunting as applying for jobs, learning the professional etiquette in a different culture and speaking in a foreign language to customers and work colleagues. Believe me, I’ve been there! However, you will feel empowered and your confidence will exponentially grow when you do so!
International students have come to me to prepare for interviews and the fear of their English language not being good enough often affect their confidence. Remember that your English doesn’t need to be perfect (not even local people speak perfect English, I have to say) and generally people are very open and appreciative to the fact that you are not a native speaker and that you can communicate in more than one language.
Some students also have an unfounded fear that they may face discrimination during the selection process only because they are international (I did too!). You should bear in mind that according to the Equality Act 2010 employers cannot discriminate against candidates.
There are employers who may not be able to sponsor visas (for various reasons including lack of resources) but this will hopefully change with the introduction of the Graduate Route. I advise students to ask for feedback in case they are not successful in interviews as this can help them to identify areas of weaknesses as well as of strengths. This will also help them realise that the reasons can be various: lack of experience, tough competition, etc and not due to their background.
Employers, however, will look for evidence that you can communicate and complete tasks in English. As all my work experience was in my home country and in my native language, I had to start with temporary roles (very basic admin tasks) and this allowed me to progress and apply for better positions later. In hindsight although at that time I was upset, if I put myself in the employers’ shoes, I would also have the same expectations.
Careers support: you are not on your own
I know that the very fact of writing a CV or going for an interview in English can be intimidating and this may put some international students off from applying for jobs. However, you should remember that your university has experienced careers advisers who will be more than happy to help you throughout your journey. Trust me, this can make a whole difference on being successful or not in a recruitment process. To this day, I am still very grateful for all the support that I had from the careers advisers at Aston University when I was doing my PhD and exploring different options. Later on, this actually inspired me to qualify as an adviser myself so I could make a positive difference in students’ lives.
Voluntary or agency work can give you more flexibility
I appreciate that, due to the timetable and deadlines to submit assignments, for some students getting a part-time job may be a challenge. In that case, voluntary work or working for agencies may be a good option as they can allow you more flexibility. If possible, look for relevant work experience, but, if this is not possible, you can still develop a number of transferable skills in other kind of jobs. For instance, in customer services roles you can develop teamwork skills, communication skills, interpersonal skills, ability to work under pressure among others.
In addition, volunteering opportunities offer a wide range of positions in different areas. The fact that the work is unpaid may take the pressure off some students and allow them to develop their confidence. Usually, these positions don’t require much experience so they can be a great opportunity of getting some. This can be a stepping stone to get a paid job here. You can also meet people who can provide you with a reference in the UK. Volunteering looks good on your CV as it shows initiative and commitment to good causes.
Students’ societies and extra-curricular activities
Students’ societies and extra-curricular activities are a great way of meeting new people. International students are inclined to join societies with students from the same country. However, you could instead join a group based on a common interest or hobbies rather than on your nationality (for example cooking, music or sports). This will enable you to improve your English language and learn about different cultures.
Sharing the same interest and passion can also help you to connect with people of different backgrounds. I’ve met incredible people in my English and Spanish classes who were key in different stages of my life after I settled in the UK, so networking is not restricted to careers fairs and professional events.
The experience and outcome of your time in the UK will ultimately depend on YOU. You should take full advantage of the career support that your university offers and look for other opportunities (such as volunteering and extra-curricular activities) while you are here. It is a lot of investment (financial, time, emotional) not to be wasted. Make sure that you will make the most of your time in the UK. In years to come, when you look back, you will not feel that you missed opportunities. Instead, you will know that you have opened doors for your future.