Insight for international students: Using your “foreign experience” to its full potential


By Arwen Kidd

Getting a degree, developing skills, gaining experience – no matter what school you choose, or where you come from, university is a time that allows students to get a head start on their careers.

For all students – from abroad or not – the basic techniques to achieve this are generally the same: earning good grades, gaining the most valuable career-relevant “experiences” you can, and polishing up on all those job-marketable skills. Then, to show these accomplishments off, building (and writing) an appealing resumé. It’s a proven formula.

Where the extra challenge for international students comes in, however, is in learning how to adjust to the Canadian labour market. If you do it well, you can embrace and emphasize what makes you special as an international student.

It’s a tricky balance, but for those students who manage to use their ‘international student status’ to its full potential, it can lead to substantial career benefits later on. And it’s a learning process that can begin right from the start of your university experience – or, for some, even before.

Today, Enrique Chacon is an international student advisor in southwestern Ontario’s University of Windsor. But 15 years ago, Chacon – a native of Colombia – was a newly arrived international student himself, intent on pursuing a master’s of international and intercultural education at the University of Alberta.

Before he started classes for his degree, Chacon says he concentrated first on improving his English – something he encourages all international students to do.

“That’s number one on the list – to improve your English,” he says. Bilingual (and particularly multilingual) skills are extremely attractive to Canadian employers, but if you don’t have sufficient working English, you simply won’t be able to compete. Although Chacon took formal ESL and TOEFL courses himself, he also believes strongly in the value of informal practice – in just getting out and meeting new people to practice your English with.

Besides language skills, Chacon says the only other real challenge some international students have in finding jobs is a general lack of awareness for their greater communities – even after they’ve already been living in Canada for a number of years.

“Some international students get so involved in their programs,” Chacon explains, “that they never really get out of their dorm rooms or off campus. It’s good that they’re concentrating on their studies, but [not if] they miss out on everything else. So I would say to them to ‘expand your horizons. Get to know the environment – the city, as well as the campus. It will help you in the long run, when you’re trying to go out and apply for jobs later on.’”

In general, Chacon says many Canadian employers are eager to hire international students and/or graduates, as, according to him, they have a strong overall reputation for being hardworking, bright individuals. But these same employers, he warns, also want to see that the students understand and fit in well with the Canadian culture and work environment – so the more experience you have working or volunteering in the country to prove this, the better off you will be.

“Volunteering is the best way to start out getting Canadian experience,” Chacon says. Although he knows that many international students come from countries where volunteering doesn’t hold the same ‘career value’ as it does in North America, he urges them to “be prepared to volunteer.”

“Come with an open mind. This is not something you will get paid for, but it can lead to jobs later on. Think long-term vision, rather than immediate results.”

Like other universities and colleges across Canada, Chacon’s employer, University of Windsor, also offers special opportunities for students to gain work experience through its Centre for Career Education. A wide range of volunteer internship and co-op programs are specially tailored for students to spend time gaining hands-on experience in their fields of professional interest.

Chacon says Windsor has a long history of sending its students for placements all over the world, providing them experience with such well-respected companies as Bell, Microsoft, and General Motors.

Through any of these experiences, Chacon stresses the importance of building up a list of potential references – people in Canada who are willing to speak about your abilities to any interested future employers. And don’t forget one of the greatest (and simplest) reference resources of all – your own professors.

“Get yourself known to one of your professors,” says Chacon. “I don’t just mean show up and say ‘sign my letter’ when you need [a reference]. Be a good student and participate in class, obviously, but also speak with the professors individually, visit them during their office hours.”

Overall, Chacon says the best way to improve your chances for employment in Canada after graduation – besides studying hard! – is getting out and experiencing the country. Whether that be through the help of university-organized events for international students, through joining campus clubs or societies, or by simply exploring the community around you, this extra perspective and “Canadian understanding” will be sure to help you show off for new employers.

“You should realize that coming to Canada could be a great experience, but you need to make sure you come with an open mind,” he says. “Realize the culture is different – which is a good thing! – and be ready to take on a lot of challenges.  If you do these things, and keep that open mind, then you can have an amazing experience, and it really can lead to great opportunities.”

Arwen Kidd is the Communications Director at the Canadian University Application Centre, which represents member Canadian universities and their select degree programs in order to better serve international students around the world.

Photo credit: The Real Work Experience: Students & Graduates by thinkpublic on Flickr