Students took these words to heart and enthusiastically engaged in conversations; responding to a list of prompts that addressed topics such as the importance of support networks, communication, connection, and employability.
The event was standing room only, with stakeholders from across the sector eager to learn more about international students’ experiences and perceptions.
“How well is your institution supporting you in terms of engaging with employers and articulating your skills and experience?” Cuthbert asked the students.
Sharif Safi, a Chevening scholar at London Metropolitan University, offered suggestions for universities to better prepare students for the workforce.
“One of the things universities can do is go beyond delivering workshops on how to prepare your CV and how to get the entry job,” he said. He recommended that universities forge partnerships with companies in a variety of different industries. “Companies spend a lot of money on recruitment process. It’s both timely and expensive. If companies have an agreement, universities can introduce their students to them”.
Louise Nicol, founder of the Asia Careers Group, agreed, stating, “I think there’s loads of opportunities for universities to make partnerships with employers”. However, she asserted that to accomplish this, universities need international graduate destination data.
Nicol also emphasised that students won’t necessarily just work for Western companies.
“The world is pivoting eastward,” she stated. “And more and more students will end up at Chinese, Malaysian, or Indian companies. So, it’s important, if we’re going to deliver on our promise to international students, that we understand where they end up.”
Terry, a law student from the University of Portsmouth, shared that his institution regularly connects students and employers. “On Tuesdays, we have an employability offering. [The university] brings people from outside, leaders in the industry, and it’s helped me see the different routes I can take.”
Maz, from Loughborough University, said, “I have a very different story than most, as I worked for almost six years. So, it makes a big difference that I had work experience.”
However, while Maz considered this a positive aspect, he admitted there were some drawbacks as well. “I was in management consulting, so you think I would at least get some role somewhere. I got a reply from an organisation who said I’m overqualified.”
Maz spoke about the fear and frustration he and many of his peers feel about the job search process, despite their qualifications and feelings of preparedness. “It’s frustrating and terrifying because we have massive loans on our heads. The amount of debt I have right now, I can’t even fathom to go back home. So that’s the main reason we want to work here [in the UK].”
“It’s frustrating and terrifying because we have massive loans on our heads”
Cuthbert then asked students how prepared they felt before they enrolled; both when they were in their home country and once arrived in the UK.
A student from Zimbabwe, studying at the University of Portsmouth, expressed gratitude for her agent who answered her multitude of questions, as she was, admittedly, an anxious student. “But unfortunately, my agent didn’t have anyone in Portsmouth at the time so she couldn’t connect me with anyone. The most preparation I could do was online.”
She then offered advice to agents to help ease the transition and anxiety felt by many international students prior to arrival. “If you already have some students in the UK, stay in contact with them and connect them with the students you’re recruiting.” She said her agency kept in contact with her and students heading to Portsmouth have contacted her. “I see how reassuring it is,” she added.
Sharif moved the conversation beyond social and academic preparedness to personal skills. “I’m really a bad cook. And when I iron my clothes, sometimes I end up burning them. These are the skills I wish I had mastered more before I came to the UK and that I would really suggest for prospective international students.”
Through a series of both moving testimonies and humorous anecdotes, students candidly shared personal experiences, lessons learned, and advice to stakeholders in the sector, with the hopes of helping to forge a new path for international students, post pandemic.