Confusion at the Border: Career Counseling

Career counselors need active partners like enrollment management administrators, graduate deans and faculty members to manage international students’ expectations, says Alfreda James.

October 26, 2015

Every appointment is an excursion to another culture for graduate career counselors. We crisscross national boundaries from our desks and run smack into different visions of the purpose and intent of higher education.

Graduate career counselors navigate cultural dissonance between the institution’s mission and the expectations of its students. While our local colleges and universities rightly encourage the globalization and expansion of their educational boundaries, we career counselors deal with the nitty-gritty of transition from F-1 students to professionals.

One unexpected aspect of this journey is regular clash of expectations between international students and career education on American campuses.

For example, my first appointment is with Mia (not her real name), and her career intention is finance, preferably at a big U.S. firm. The missing ingredients interfering with Mia's career goals are a knowledge of American financial markets and language skills. She is a whiz at math, though, and will complete an advanced degree in a quantitative field.

Mia is a textbook case of the role that career counselors play in socializing and educating students. She is also an example of the limitations of merely admitting F-1 students, providing a day of orientation to the campus and then assuming residential programs and academic courses will take care of any remaining issues involved with acclimating to Western culture -- specifically the history and language of finance.

A typical career center workshop on job-search strategies has no meaning when Mia is unfamiliar with trading or commodities or does not understand the difference between agricultural goods or precious metals. The marketplace of buyers and sellers with its prices, regulations and external forces is not in her sight.

Yet within the educational research on decision making, enrollment trends and accountability, Mia and her struggle to adjust do not exist. The educational and social dynamics leading her to my campus go uncharted by admissions and retention data. We have yet to acknowledge her own objectives for enrolling in my institution. International students are a heterogeneous group requiring closer attention.

Her course work is all about the equations, and her daily focus is translating. She tasks her brain to switch between her home language and the many shades of English that she encounters. She translates direct instructions for homework and assignments. Her resident adviser issues fire-safety regulations for living in a dormitory. Then Mia reads the menu in the food court. That article on how big data influences decisions in the market? Not within her bandwidth.

Reading Bloomberg News or any other sources related to financial markets is not likely to be on her agenda either. And if she has an assignment requiring her to use financial news sources, she’ll only focus on the task, not the usefulness of the reference to her career education. She is locked in a cycle where finely honed mathematics skills have limited professional opportunities. Mia is not a doctoral student with the luxury of time to improve her language. She is marching through a master’s degree program in three semesters and more focused on OPT extension than corporate culture.

Career counselors wind up parsing more than occupational definitions. We teach and coach international students to see the depth and breadth of American work culture.

My next appointment is a student from the computer science department. He has an interview for a summer position, but he is anxious that if this employer offers him an internship, he'll lose out on other options after graduation. Since when did the prospect of an interview with a financial software company become a liability or handicap to future advancement? The hypercompetitive F-1 student community closely follows company rankings, and only the top 25 organizations in any industry will do. Even accepting an offer for a summer internship from a company outside the top quarter gets translated as a defeat. My job with this master's degree candidate is to encourage experiential learning and talk about intermediate steps to greater opportunities.

Finally, a doctoral student arrives. He is an early-stage scientist with clear expectations of an academic career at a top-tier university. Does he have a publication history? No. What about poster sessions or conference papers? No. Finally, I asked if he had even settled on a research proposal, because his responses never included descriptions of topics or processes associated with his degree program. The young man has yet to propose a research topic.

But as a product of an elite university in his home country, he presumes that he will automatically transition from his current position to a research career. Despite all the data from within his discipline showing (warning about?) fluctuations in the academic job market and the mélange of choices offered with this particular degree, he has focused on the narrowest possible slice. The influence of his home country and family triumph over rational thought, the scientific method attached to his education and even the interpersonal skills he has yet to develop for his ersatz academic career. In his view, high educational status in the home country ensures visibility and prominence in the American workforce.

Breathing deeply, I ask this young man if he has discussed these plans with his departmental adviser. The answer is no, but he is confident of her support. He has no interest in professional advice from his field of study. He has come to my office on the recommendation of his friends or seniors (recent Ph.D. alumni), as he calls them. Impressed by the career choices and salaries of his peers, he is searching for a route to his specified outcome. My university is less a place for research and advancement of knowledge and more of a geographic latitude to continue his social standing. And I doubt that his adviser fully appreciates the extent of his indifference to running experiments, calibrating instruments and watching cells.

Career counselors and professional development are not the solution to every instance of miscommunication, disinformation and cultural adjustment. But career counselors are better posed to observe and even track discrepancies between institutional values and students’ goals. Career counselors need active partners like enrollment management administrators, graduate deans and faculty members to manage students’ expectations. To completely fulfill our goals to broaden and deepen students’ knowledge of the world, we need to augment what we know about the goals and intentions of our population.

While not exactly a refuge or safe haven, an American career center functions like a checkpoint between aspirations and reality. But our standard approach of a highly social welcome -- come to our workshop, free food! -- overlooks the degree to which unacknowledged cultural differences interfere with academic, personal and professional advancement. We need better reference guides beyond demographic reports and standardized test scores to serve the variety of students seeking our help.


Alfreda James is assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the career center at Stony Brook University.


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