Career centers are well equipped to support international students in developing a sense of identity and purpose.
Prior to the pandemic, the University of Waterloo’s Center for Professional Work (CCA) embarked on a multi-year expedition in support of the institution’s internationalization strategy. Our goal was to inspire international students to engage with us early and often. What follows is an overview of our journey, highlighting the choices and ideas gained along the way – with the goal of inspiring you to think about the possibilities of your service landscape.
Service data, campus counseling
Going into the process, we learned that approximately 33 percent of all students participate with us each year and international students appear to be no different. However, a closer examination of our data revealed disturbing facts, such as that the international students were:
- Half the probability of local students accessing our one-on-one career services, and
- The only selectable group that reaches the maximum appointments (listed long ago).
These trends caught our attention and helped us identify next steps.
Next came the consultations with student groups, staff, faculty, and colleagues in other institutions. We delved into international students’ perceptions, challenges, and needs; Specifically how and when these appear within Work Integrated Learning (WIL) contexts. What we found is that despite setting deadlines to ensure the service is accessible to everyone, it is counterproductive – leading first and second year students to avoid engaging with us in order to maximize access later in their studies. Meanwhile, international students report the need for early participation. Once the impact of our policy became apparent, we quickly removed the caps. It was a memorable example of how the intent of a policy can’t match the outcome – and a moment of humility.
The consultations revealed other gaps and opportunities as well. We found that important and nuanced conversations were taking place between staff and students and were not reflected in our programs or resources; Furthermore, our support can be difficult to navigate with confidence. As a result, we made several changes, including:
- Designing “zero step” collaborative preparation interventions, such as CV lessons designed for international students, with peers ready for one-on-one contact; more workshops to build cross-cultural awareness; and an embedded collaborative/professional curriculum for integration into the University of Waterloo’s academic bridging programs
- Expand indirect professional services from three to seven hours per day during one very busy month each semester, and co-location with the writing center services
- Integrating professional education messages into the university’s international peer community communication vehicles
Results and reflections on change
The most notable result of this multi-layered initiative was that within two years, we’ve seen the average international student go from half as likely as a local student to use our services, to consuming just over 1.5 times more resources than local students as a percentage of the population. Furthermore, 94.6 percent of these students stated that they were most likely to recommend our services to their peers. This shift is a point of pride and appears to be rooted in increased awareness and our more personalized approach to advocating for engagement. However, arguably the biggest win is that we have advanced our understanding of how to bring about meaningful change in the student service landscape.
Our first area of learning was that when striving for continuous improvement, it is critically important to enable stakeholder perspectives and data to shape an individual’s actions. This sounds simple, yet it is not necessarily a comfortable process in all post-secondary environments. We have benefited greatly from setting goals and then deliberately refraining from moving on to solutions. This process is part of what enables us to remain vigilant and adaptable. It also kept our stakeholders at the center and gave us the opportunity to organically build a system around them.
Second, we saw that the value of robust service data cannot be overstated. There is little that one can do to compensate for the lack of qualitative and quantitative evidence of what is or is not happening. The next steps forward in this area will be to better align survey questions with the higher welfare outcomes of career development work and gain more practice in incorporating aggregated social location data into our analytics.
The third area to learn is that with programming and communications, integration is key. Our most sustainable impacts have arisen by creating joint programs with campus partners and incorporating professional education messages into their existing curricula and communications.
Ultimately, the pursuit of internationalization within the context of a career center requires that we appreciate and design services and programming that resonate with individuals across the intersections of identities, cultural backgrounds, and lived experiences. Successful implementation may require intentional collaboration with campus partners in order to find common goals and embody shared values at a systems level and on a daily basis.
Since the onset of the pandemic, new barriers to employment have emerged for a large number of international students; Now is the time to redouble our efforts. Career centers are well-equipped to support international students in developing a sense of identity and purpose that will help them navigate the unknown world of work with flexibility. Our work is far from over.
This column is coordinated by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) Internationalized Community of Student Affairs Practice. For comments or questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.