August 5th, 2010
Why are these international grad students smiling?
They have just received certificates for having completed a series of summer workshops aimed at career development. They now know how to create a curriculum vitae, how to shape a professional résumé and cover letter as part of a job application, what kinds of things they should bear in mind while searching for employment, whether in or beyond the academy, how to behave—dress, talk, sit, smile—in a job interview, and how to create a professional portfolio. These might be the most valuable life and workplace skills they will learn at university.
In the bad old days, we would admit international students to graduate school and let them sink or swim once they got to our shores, not really providing enough of a support system to help them confront and adjust to different cultural expectations. We didn’t track their success or failure, didn’t follow up to see what happened to them, didn’t even consider their employment prospects, didn’t even think of welcoming them with more than “here’s your cubicle, good luck.” At best, we could say they were treated the same as any other incoming graduate student. Today, we are supersensitive to the possibility of culture shock and recognize that the majority of internationals are simply not starting a career quest from the same starting block as nationals. We take so much for granted, falsely assuming a level playing field when, in fact, that field is littered with obstacles and incomprehensible signs.
So it is that in conjunction with the office of the dean of student affairs and the provincial government, and the expertise and dedication of a bright, highly motivated staff, the freshly minted Professional Skills Development Program has completed a full cycle, happy graduates above. You could feel their energy when you walked into the room where the closing ceremony was held this week, and where each of the registered students received his/her certificate of participation. They were smiling as bright as the sun, snapping pictures and looking smart, and conveying a rather infectious mood of accomplishment.
The delightful, enthusiastic coordinators of the program, Lynn Walsh and Jennifer White, could probably charm an elm worm away off a maple leaf. It was so obvious how well they balance informal and formal styles of address and presentation, and how comfortable the students feel with them after 7 weeks of workshopping topics such as “understanding Canadian employment culture and workplace etiquette” or “getting familiar with my community.”
Over the weekly sessions, the program includes 1 community/service learning initiative and 2 networking opportunities. At the ceremony, we heard about how resolutely the students helped out at the weekly farmer‘s market in St John’s, among other volunteer activities, all by way of presenting themselves to and interacting with the local community beyond the university. We heard about how the program encouraged them to build confidence with strangers, with faculty and their peers, how to make good eye contact, and, importantly, how to shake hands with a firm, memorable grip. You’d be amazed how many people—never mind incoming grad students—have no idea how to do that. Have you ever extended your hand only to have it met with someone’s lifeless, floppy one? Exactly. If you are reading this and think you might have a weak handshake please start squeezing a rubber ball immediately.
I thought it was particularly wise of the coordinators to remind the students to scan their program certificates and include them on their résumés. No accomplishment should go unrecorded, indeed. They were also reminded to network after the ceremony with the invited guests—that is, to apply their social skills and make an impression. One certainly made an impression on me, an Engineering student who admitted he read my weekly blogs to familiarize himself with English idiom. Man, how’s that for putting himself forward? Well played, Mohammed! One of the benefits of the program is that it builds a community of learners who have come through the sessions together, students who are now part of a special group because they have shared the same confidence-building exercises. They are, in other words, their own network—from masters students to post-docs—who can go forward counting on each other for advice and conversation.
Now that the program has played out its first full cycle, it is well worth thinking about extending the services it offers to larger groups of students, and not just internationals. That will take some thinking through and more resources to manage what is likely to be a much larger cohort of interested participants. If these students have learned their lessons well they will be boasting of the program benefits in all the new networks they will be forming. Word of mouth, accompanied by strong eye contact and a good grip, is going to take the Professional Skills Development Program to an entirely new level.