The Road from Education to Employability

International students often choose to study in the United States in hopes that an education abroad will boost their career prospects. How are U.S. institutions meeting those expectations?
Photo: Amanda Large/Stocksy

For Shela Usadi, the dream of living and working in the United States was a key factor driving her decisions about college.

Usadi left her home in Indonesia in December 2012 to enroll at Seattle Central College in Seattle, Washington. As she prepared to complete her associate’s degree in May 2014 and began considering where to continue her higher education, she meticulously researched potential employers and studied employment data from the four-year universities that offered her admission. Usadi chose the University of Minnesota (UMN)’s Carlson School of Management, partly because of the school’s postgraduation employment track record. 

“The employment rate after graduation [from Carlson] was always really high—usually around 97 percent,” says Usadi, who graduated in December 2016 with a degree in finance and risk management and a minor in management information systems.

“[When making my decision], I primarily looked at the employment statistics for the past 5 years for all the universities I was admitted to,” she says. “It also was essential for the university to have a great career center equipped with resources that specifically cater to international students.”

Many international students like Usadi place potential career outcomes at the top of their priority list when making decisions about higher education. Most students who study in the United States arrive with hopes of landing a job with a company based in the country—at least for a few years. A 2017 study by World Education Services (WES) found that 73 percent of international students were motivated to select a U.S. institution because of the potential to gain work experience before returning home or going to another country.

“It has been a hallmark of coming to study in the United States that you have these opportunities for putting into practice [in the workplace] what you have learned in the academic environment,” says Barbara Kappler, assistant dean of UMN’s international student and scholar services (ISSS). “Those employment options are understood by prospective students and their families as a really fantastic benefit of studying in the United States.”

But is this widely held expectation—and other assumptions by international students regarding employability—realistic?

Though Usadi believed it would be a challenge to land a job in the United States upon graduation, she thought her strong work ethic would pay off. She put her finance and information technology skills to work in numerous campus leadership roles and completed two internships; the second resulted in a job offer upon her graduation.

“It was definitely really difficult to get a job in the United States,” says Usadi, who lives in Minneapolis and is a health care business and data analyst for HealthPartners. “What I didn’t expect was how tedious and complicated all the paperwork was. Also, at the end of the day, I don’t think it was working hard that eventually helped me get a job in the United States. It was my ability to network and my perseverance.”

Career Expectations

Kirsten Feddersen, associate vice president of international programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), says that her interactions with international students in recruitment settings have revealed that international students are not only focused on what they are learning in the classroom, but also how to translate their knowledge into a job after graduation.

“There’s definitely more focus on: ‘How is this degree going to help me have an opportunity to stay in the United States afterwards?’” Feddersen says.

arrows on road

For Zayra Gonzalez Reyes, the prospect of working for a large U.S. company was one of the top reasons she left her home in Dominican Republic to study at Michigan State University. After graduating in 2016, she was recruited by Amazon as a senior human resources assistant at one of the company’s biggest U.S. return centers in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. Reyes has since earned a master’s degree in Madrid, Spain, and works with the Global HR Culture and Strategy team at Banco Santander, a financial services company and commercial bank based in Spain.

“[Because] the United States [is] one of the most influential countries in the world, I wanted to experience what it was like, not just to study and live there, but work there as well,” Reyes says. “To be honest, it was a little scary to think about employability given my visa. As a J-1, there were very few companies that fit my criteria that were willing to offer me a position or even an opportunity to intern with them. I was really lucky to have had the opportunity to be employed by Amazon.”

Not all international students share Reyes’s experience, however. Many international students arrive in the United States with unrealistic expectations about work opportunities, Feddersen says. They often underestimate how long the job search process takes, for example, as well as the importance of completing internships before their senior year, she adds.

“A lot of students end up having to leave the United States because they’re not able to find a job in the time frame before their [Optional Practical Training] OPT expires,” Feddersen says. “We work closely with our colleagues in SNHU’s Career Services and International Student Services offices to make sure that while students are here, they fully understand how soon they have to get started on this process and what they can do to prepare themselves for the job market. That includes building a network, taking the opportunities for internships, and connecting with their professors. The students who hold off [on these steps] until the last minute are usually the ones who end up not being successful in finding a job here afterwards.”

Among the international students who do get job offers, many are disappointed with their earnings. According to the 2017 WES study, 39 percent of alumni who were employed in the United States said that their salaries were lower than expected for their level of education. Even so, 92 percent believed that studying in the United States would provide a good return on their investment over time.

With the looming possibility that President Trump’s administration may place new restrictions on work-related programs such as OPT and the H-1B program, however, will international students continue to see U.S. higher education as a promising option?

The United States is still the top destination for international students. But countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are attracting an increasing number of international students to their campuses. Their more generous work rights for international students could tip the scales in their favor, given the advantages they offer:

  • Australia allows international students to accept off-campus jobs without proving a connection between the employment and their field of study.
  • Canada initiated a program that provides several pathways for international students to gain work authorization and permanent residency after graduation.
  • United Kingdom reinstated the two-year work rights for international students after graduation for the 2020–21 academic year.

According to UMN’s Kappler, “Prospective international students are definitely interested in Optional Practical Training and other work options when they’re considering where to study.” She adds, “They’re also looking at these other countries, so the policies in place at a national level are more influential than what any specific university can provide regarding the work options.”

What Employers Want

While technical competencies and industry-specific knowledge are important to employers, they also are looking for candidates who are capable of learning new things, adapting to change, and collaborating in teams.

The Job Outlook 2019 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that written communication skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to work effectively in a team are the top attributes employers are looking for in job candidates. The surveyed employers also indicated that they want to hire people with proven skills in taking initiative, critical thinking and analysis, and adaptability and flexibility, to name a few.

Khalifa Al Dhaen, a 2016 graduate of the University of San Diego (USD), says that studying in the United States sharpened his ability to collaborate with people from different cultures and perspectives—a critical skill for today’s global economy.

“Dealing with different people and cultures is very important in the corporate world, specifically where you are constantly in contact with people around the globe conducting business,” says Al Dhaen, an engineer at Strata Manufacturing who returned to his home country, United Arab Emirates, after graduating. “Learning alongside students from different parts of the world—interacting and having conversations with them in a diverse environment such as USD—proved to be the most beneficial experience I’ve had to date.”

arrows on road

Some U.S. employers are hesitant to hire international students, primarily because hiring officials often don’t understand the work authorization process and visa regulations. The NACE report shows a slight uptick in employers with plans to hire international students, slightly over 28 percent. This category hit a five-year low in last year’s report, with just 23.4 percent of employer respondents indicating plans to hire international students. (The all-time high for that category was 34.2 percent in 2015.) Uncertainty about the impact of the political climate on visa work programs also may lead more employers to shy away.

“Our role [in employer relations] is to educate the employers in collaboration with the ISSS professionals on campus who understand the work authorization process,” says Sharena Cotellesse Payne, associate director of employer relations at American University. “We provide information [about the process] to employers when they come to the job and internship fairs or when they come to visit students on campus.”

Career Development and Support Services

Because of variations in educational background or culture, international students often face different challenges than their U.S. peers in developing the professional skills that employers desire. They may struggle with language barriers, for example, that can make communication more difficult when it comes to writing résumés and cover letters or completing job interviews. The concept of and emphasis on networking is new to many international students, especially those who come from cultures where promoting one’s skills and abilities is considered boastful.

Jane Sitter, the international career consultant at UMN’s career services administration, works closely with the students to build up their networks within the university community and beyond. She offers tutorials on using LinkedIn and effective communication skills, hosts networking workshops and campus visits with employers, and facilitates connections with international alumni.

Preparation is Key

Ways ISSS advisers can help prepare international students for the job search in the United States:

  • Hold mock interviews that include commonly asked questions from U.S. employers.
  • Give clear language about how international students can answer questions about whether they are authorized to work in the United States.
  • Teach workshops on writing résumés and cover letters, detailing what to include (and what not to include) in each.
  • Facilitate peer mentorships with domestic students who might be well-versed in the mechanics of job searching in the United States.
  • Hold a mini networking event for both domestic and international students to practice networking with each other.
  • Make a cheat sheet of behaviors, like handshakes, eye contact, punctuality, and professional dress, that are expected in U.S. workplaces.
  • Remind international students to consider internships as well as full-time jobs.

“These supplemental programs help to break down those cultural transition barriers that one might encounter when adjusting to a new working world culture,” Sitter says. “A lot of our students are coming from places where networking can be seen as showing off or bragging about yourself, but really it’s about building a community of people who have similar academic or professional interests. So we try to break down misconceptions about networking and translate it in a way that’s easily accessible to students.”

Many international students also do not understand the concept or full scope of career services because outside of the United States, this type of support is largely nonexistent. The WES study found that almost one-third of the international students surveyed never used career services during their time on a U.S. campus.

“[Around the world], and particularly when you leave the Western world, there is no profession of student affairs,” says Martin Tillman, president of consulting group Global Career Compass. “That complicates the expectations of any international students planning to come to the United States. Most arrive in the United States with no knowledge that there is this robust group of professionals on campus who are hired to help them make a go of it. So, while families are sending their students here—to hopefully give them and their family a leg up for a better job and a better life—they don’t appreciate or have any knowledge of the role of the career center on a U.S. campus.”

Sitter meets with international students during orientation to introduce them to the services she offers, encouraging them to think about career development from day one and emphasizing the importance of internships. She invites them to meet with a career counselor, to attend career fairs, and to start conversations about their career path.

“We try to break down the complexity of career services and get the word out [about us] as soon as possible,” Sitter says.

For some international students, the idea of choosing a career that they find interesting is also a new concept. Many come from cultures where their parents or other elders have predetermined their careers. However, when they come to the United States and begin exploring new interests and taking courses in different disciplines, they may develop new career goals.

“For many international students, this is the first time in their life they’ve had the choice to pursue whatever it is they want to do,” says Darbi Roberts, executive director of international student services at SNHU. “They should be coached in a culturally appropriate way to help them make a good decision about their future and then manage expectations with family. It takes multiple meetings over and over to build a relationship with those students to say, ‘What is it that you love? What are you really good at?’ Once you have that kind of information, then you can help guide them to better choices that are still somewhat aligned with [family] expectations, but also more aligned with their desires and what they want out of life.”

A Community of Support on Campus and Beyond

Providing effective career development support for. international students requires collaboration and cooperation across campus. International student and scholar services professionals, working alongside the institution’s career services staff and key faculty members, can build effective partnerships through which domestic and international students develop the skills to be competitive in the job market.

International alumni also make good partners. Usadi, wanting to help other UMN international students and alumni benefit from her experience, started the International Student Alumni Network to support international students and alumni in the Twin Cities, Minnesota area. The organization hosts networking and professional growth events and has plans to start a mentoring program that will match international students with international alumni for career development.

“Leaving your home country and living alone in another country is always difficult, and I think it can even be more difficult after you graduate,” Usadi says. “I wanted to bring all the international student alumni in the Twin Cities together because we share so many of the same problems and have similar experiences. I wanted to build a community that would help one another.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.