Note: This blog post originally appeared on FastCompany.com.
As I travel around to universities this fall, I’m meeting more and more international students pursuing their college degrees in the United States. These students face unique challenges while job hunting, networking and building their careers.
For perspective on this experience, I asked Nuzhat M. Karim, Program Manager, University Relations, EMC², who grew up in Bangladesh, to answer some questions.
Q: Why did you decide to go to college in the US?
A: My grandfather (my mom’s father) and my father came to Texas A&M, College Station for their PhDs in the 70s, but they later moved back to Bangladesh. Then, all my maternal uncles, aunts and my brother moved to the U.S. for college and career. All the stories about the U.S. and the U.S. education system really made me want to come, too.
Q: What was most different or surprising about coming to university in the U.S.?
A: The biggest difference is the fact that a student can start college here without deciding what to major in and even change major multiple times if one wishes.
In Bangladesh, the scarce number of universities against the huge population makes college admission extremely competitive. High school graduates sit for admission tests in Engineering schools, Medical schools and Business schools not knowing which exam they will pass.
For example, in Dhaka University (the most accredited government university in the country), there are units of majors: Science, Humanities, Commerce, etc. Admission test takes place separately for each unit. In Science, for example, the top 50 students will get admitted to study Computer Science, the next 45 to Pharmacy, the next 30 in Genetics and so on. There are 38 students competing for one seat on an average! One can choose to go down in the ranking but not the other way round. That is to say, if one student gets admitted to Computer Science and wants to study Pharmacy, he/she can but not the other way around.
Q: When and how did you make the decision to look for your first job in the U.S. instead of your home country?
A: I knew within my first semester in college that I wanted to live in the U.S. Like I said before, my brother and most of my family have already moved here. I really started to like it here as soon as I moved as well. So, starting my freshman year of college, I looked for internships, got involved in extra curricular activities, and did anything and everything to make myself more marketable in the U.S. job market after I graduated.
Q: What special challenges do international students face in the job search?
A: The challenge almost all international students face is to be able to land in a job where work permit/visa will be issued. The situation has gotten even worse after 9/11 and it’s now even more difficult for companies to justify hiring an international student and process a work visa for that employee. That makes it really hard for international students to “follow a passion.” Choosing a major almost always has to be a very calculated decision.
Q: What advantages do international students bring to companies?
A: Diversity is a really strong advantage that international students bring to companies. By diversity I don’t mean just ethnicity. It includes life experience, upbringing, faith/religion, passion and languages spoken. A diverse employee pool reflects an inclusive and socially responsible environment, which, in many cases, mirrors a customer base that many global companies currently have. Diverse perspectives drive innovation, which is extremely crucial for sustainability in a highly competitive world.
Q: What is your best advice to international students and recent grads like you?
A: Instead of staying in the comfort zone of the people from the same ethnic group, I would recommend all international college students to spend leisure times to network with students from all over the world.
Getting involved in community outreach initiatives, being in the Student Government Board and the Professional Leadership Program, helping with organizing events at the university, having a part time job in the campus helped me meet people I still reach out to occasionally. Making an effort to get to know my professors also really helped when it was time to ask for recommendation letters.
Extra curricular activities (in addition to a high GPA) can also help to make international students more marketable after graduation. When employers have to justify hiring an international student, all types of involvement outside the classroom really help.
Note: Nuzhat has generously offered to answer additional questions from blog readers. Please submit your questions in the comments section below. Thanks!