International Students: Tips to Strive in the US Workplace


Each year thousands of international students arrive in the United States to pursue higher education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Some of the obvious reasons include attaining better education, taking advantage of the opportunities during their studies to acquire job-related skills and professional experiences, to build and sustain a professional and social network, and to enjoy the generosity of the so-called “American Dream” and ways of life including its diverse social culture. How generous the American Dream is, is practically subjective and relative rather than an objective question.

As a domestic student with solid roots as a refugee who has resettled in the United States almost a decade ago from Ghana, I couldn’t but always face the battle mentally whether or not I was an international or domestic student. At least from a legal standpoint, one could argue that I fit nicely the category of a domestic student given my legal status in the US. Mentally, in some instances, I saw myself somewhat an international student. The former was purely legal reasoning, while the later was a matter of ideological reasoning.

Conclusively, I felt more like an international student than domestic. It is because of this close connection that I feel this post could be very useful for international students who might be interested working in the US. It is not the purpose of this post to be exhaustive on the subject matter but to serve as an additional resource to all the wonderful tips out there.

Therefore, in the following paragraphs, I try to provide some practical tips that could be very useful to international students as they prepare to engage in the US workforce after graduation.

Life after graduation as an international student could be full of several opportunities, which highly depends on how quickly you are willing to transition from the life as a student to that of a working professional.

We all like to take few times off for ourselves immediately following graduation to do some travels, catch up with friends and loved ones, travel back home (most likely), and or just to refresh ourselves as we take the next path of our journey in life. Others may get married and move forward with a totally new plan and ambition. Either way, after graduation, we immediately start to think hard (if such thoughts were not initially thought off) about “what now?”

Thus, the following tips are meant to serve as general guidance in the process of creating, sustaining and growing in the career sphere after graduation and some of the resources that could be available to enhance your professional experiences, while living and working in the US. It is very important to take few times off between graduation and when you start working. This brief transition period allows you to adjust yourself physically, mentally and spiritually in preparation for the next phase of your life.

1. Maintain a legitimate legal status

Always be in good standing with the law.

First and foremost, the legal immigration stipulation states that in order to come to the US to study, you will need a visa; that is, either an F or M visa. The distinction between an F-1 and M-1 visas.

Firstly, F-1 visas are given to those international students who are enrolled in a course of study that is geared towards a degree (short definition), the institution you enrolled in must be authorized by the US government to accept international students. This means that you’ve already done your work to know prior to arrival in the US that the university/college you enrolled in is authorized to admit an international student. If not, you will be denied a visa by the US Consulate in your home country. In short, all F-1 visas issued to international students are based on academic advancement.

Secondly, M-1 visa is issued to international students who are seeking admittance in the US for the advancement of their vocational expertise; that is, their course of studies are not academic and don’t result to a degree. I will strongly recommend that you keep close attention by visiting the US Department of Homeland Security website to get updated information on the description of each visa type and the opportunities to work.

Generally, international students with F-1 may not work off campus during the first academic year of their studies but may accept on-campus employment based on certain limitations. Without going into the more specific details, there are generally three types of off-campus employment opportunities that may be available for international students with F-1 visas and these include: Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion), Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT).

For international students with M-1 visas can engage in employment under “practical training” only when they have successfully completed the vocational training certification program to which they were admitted in the US under that visa category.

International students with either an F-1 or M-1 visas can only pursue career opportunities to the degree program of study or the vocational training and must be approved/authorized by the designated authority in your university who is responsible for maintaining the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)) and USCIS.

If you are in the US as a B-1 and B-2 nonimmigrant status (tourist visa, etc) and would like to change your legal status to either an F-1 and M-1, you can only do that if your current B-1/B-2 nonimmigrant status has not expired, you are not enrolled in classes, and are not engaged in unauthorized employment. This is a matter of separate discussion so I will leave it as such. The point here is that, if you came to the US as a tourist, you can apply to adjust/change your status to either F-1 and M-1 student visas if the previously stated requirements are met.

Always make sure you keep your immigration documentations and cards safely and securely. As a general tip, make photocopies of all important immigration documents and have it on you at all times. Always keep your I-94 in your passport and ready to present to an immigration officer when you leave the US as that keeps tracks of all your records when you leave and re-enters the US at a Port of Entry (POE).

2. Do I need a work permit if I have F-1 and M-1 visas?

Always ask questions, if you are unclear whether or not you need a work permit, when trying to seek employment off-campus?

International students with either F-1 and M-1 visas, if working on-campus do not need a work permit. If you are seeking off-campus employment after completing the first academic year of study, you might be required to have special kind of work authorization from the  US Department of Homeland Security to be able to work off-campus. If you are working on-campus, your work hours may be limited up to 20 hours per week, but you might be able to work unlimited hours during the summer break or intersection period, which is shorter than summer.

Once you have completed the first year of study on the program, you may be eligible when you apply for a work permit, which allows you to seek employment off-campus. You might want to contact the International Students Office at your university or more easily, you can get information by visiting the Registrar’s office.

3. Always work to improve your English vocabulary.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart. Nelson Mandela

In the United States, English is the primary language of the workplace in most organizations follow by Spanish, which in some instances is required upon employment. If English is not your native language, I will like to encourage you to always learn to add new words and key phrases to your English-speaking diction. Once you get a job, it is expected that you have the needed competence and knowledge to communicate effectively both in written and spoken forms. The more you read and speak, the more you learn and are able to enhance your communication skills. Communication is crucial in the US workplace.

4. Take relevant courses

Each degree seeking program has set of requirements (core with electives required courses) that have to be followed and successfully completed for a degree to be awarded. First, make sure you meet with your academic advisor for your degree program to understand what the core course requirements are and what options exist for electives and how those courses availability varies over academic semester over the period of your study? That is, when are you expected to complete the core courses? What are the elective options that you can pick from based on your specialized interest of the degree that is being sought?

Your academic goals should be closely linked to your career goals.

I would like to suggest that you visit a career advisor at your university to see if the courses selected (from the elective) make sense in terms of your overall career aspirations? It is always a good practice to make appointments with your academic advisor about the same time you arrange a visit with your career advisor. The point with such an arrangement is that you can discuss potential courses that would make more sense to your career goals. The point here is to take academic courses that in the long run would facilitate the potential of you being employed. You should note that being employed for a position is a function of several factors, which include your level and years of experiences, skills, references, interview responses, tests results (performance-based test results), etc.

5. Establish professional relationships with your professors.

“The professor is not merely an information dispensing machine, but a skilled navigator  of a complex landscape.”
―  William Badke

One interesting aspect of the teaching-learning process is the ability to establish relationships with our professors and colleagues. I am not saying to keep each and every relationship developed over the period of the study, but to nurture and maintain those that we think could benefit you in the future of your professional development.

Also, during the job search process, the recommendations from your professors could become handy and instrumental to hiring managers interested in your candidacy. While still in school you might work with a professor as a Research Assistant, Teaching Assistant, Mentor, etc. during the semester or for several semesters. You might also work in an administrative position with and without a professor. It is very important to keep a positive relationship with folks you worked with, while in those roles.

6. Engage socially and expand your networks.

“I think women are really good at making friends and not good at networking. Men are good at networking and not necessarily making friends. That’s a gross generalization, but I think it holds in many ways.”  Madeleine Albright

Social engagement is essential, while in college and also important after graduation. Reference to social engagement and social networks is not solely being branded online and via social media or having your digital footprints going ahead of you. Social engagement refers to the physical, non-digital interactions that we have with peers and others we encounter physically.

Some of the friends we make today could be our next employer down the line or could recommend us for a position they think we might be a good fit. Jobs referrals within organizations are one of the effective means of being hired. Most of us know someone who could work in a specific role we thought they might be a perfect fit. So, while in school make sure you build you your networks by establishing good professional relationships with your colleagues and also with the academic and non-academic staff. As much as you build your network, also make sure to sustain it.

7. Ask yourself, who do I know there?

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
―  William James

Most job seekers missed the common advantage of utilizing prior connections when searching for jobs. As an international student, you are not different from anyone else when it comes to job hunt. While it may be more difficult for you in terms of job sponsorship requirements (if necessary) compared with those of another immigration status. It is very important to capitalize on prior connections and acquaintances in the job search process.

On platforms like LinkedIn and Academia, it is very easy to see where your connections work and if anyone works at an organization that you are interested, your first point of contact should be that person. Even though that doesn’t mean they can promise you anything, it could serve as a leading entry into the system. So, as international students before you apply to any job, ask yourself “who do I know there” and how can I utilize that connection to ease the job search process? Could you set up a meeting with your connection to discuss your interest in the organization and if possible the job that attracted you there. You could ask more general questions about the work environment, ethics, etc. Remember, as much as you are in the search for a job, you should also be evaluating the organization to determine, if this is somewhere you really want to be.

8. Don’t be shy.

“Shyness is invariably a suppression of something. It’s almost a fear of what you’re capable of.” Rhys Ifans

We at some point become shy. Shy at the point that you feel embarrassed connecting with us or engaging with them. There is a place for shyness, but when you are searching for a job shyness should not be something you should consider. You should not confuse shyness with being respectful. Sometimes a lot of job seekers confused the two. Some may be shy because they might feel less capable of what they able to do, but the reality is that shyness is a deep suppression of what we are actually capable of doing.

So, when it comes to job search, don’t let shyness prevents you from talking and positively engaging with others. Most international students with very limited working experiences in the US may more likely be shy during the job search or in the workplace. While shyness is a good emotion, you can use it to your advantage by understanding that you are one of your kind in the universe with great abilities, strengthens and potentials.

9. Employers expect you to get on and start rolling

 “Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.” Anne M. Mulcahy

Once you get a job, you will have time to get to know your workspace,  your colleagues, and teams, the systems you will be using and start acclimatizing yourself to the work-culture, systems and the business environment. This transition process will take time sometimes could last for weeks or even months, so do not push yourself too hard for a fast transition. Give yourself time to adjust to your new job and the rest will unfold gradually.

10. Familiarize yourself with the “language-culture of your work-scape”

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

One of the effective ways to get settled quickly in your new role as an international student who works in a typical US workplace is to get familiarize with the language-culture or landscape of the organization or company where work. Do not be surprise when you get bombarded on the first day of work by acronyms.

Americans are obsessed with acronyms. Sometimes to the point that even a new hire is unnoticed when some of your colleagues sandwich an entire compound sentence with groups acronyms layer by layer and they subconsciously and unintentionally would expect you to know what the heck those acronyms are. So, pause for a moment and break the silence that is circus-navigating your new hire brain and ask them what those means?

Do not be afraid or shy to ask for example what “SEO”, which means Search Engine Optimization from web analytics standpoint. If not, you will have to find out the meanings of the acronyms the other way round and that is via GOOGLING!! Some of us are shy, but look asking doesn’t hurt.

It is very important to grasp the business language (words) that are more frequently used in your workplace. That allows you to be able to follow through when major issues are being discussed as well as allows you to better understand how you could contribute to a specific request that needs your expertise. In summary, we get to do more and more of our best when we fully understand what needs to be done.

The art of solving a problem is half complete when you fully understand what the major component parts are the problem. Do not attempt to solve a problem when you’ve not fully exhausted understanding the problem itself.

11. Be organized

“The only difference between a mob and a trained army is organization.”    Calvin Coolidge

Self-organization is an important skill that is useful irrespective of whether or not you are an international or domestic student. Prospective employers or hiring managers who are more keen to organization skills as one of the deciding factors for selection during the hiring process will tend to find a way to evaluate your organizational skills.

Your organization skills could be expressive in how you prepare and respond to all components of the hiring process from the initial application submission to phone screening interviews, face-to-face interviews, etc. So, at most do your best to galvanize on the benefits of the first impression and demonstrate your organizational skills at first sight.

12. Never say No too quickly and Yes too early

The words Yes and No are very powerful. They are powerful to the extent that you are either motivated to pursue a job or not. These words have strong ties to your motivation and inspiration, which ultimately influence your worldview, action, behavior, and character. If a situation comes your way from a job offer vs. a career standpoint never be too fast to accept the offer by saying yes or too quickly to reject it by saying no.

First and foremost, do a quick “elevator assessment” of your goal. Is this something that I have the passion to do? How does this job fit into the bigger picture? Are there opportunities to grow, if yes, what exactly would I like to see developed over time while on the job? Is this something I would commit to for the next 2-5 years (short-term) or 5-10 years (long-term)? You might not have all the answers for these questions upfront to assist you to make a decision.

The most important thing here is that try as much as possible to have some answers for each of the recommended questions. Do not attempt to provide exhaustive answers because that isn’t going to work, but rather build on what you already know and move slowly, but carefully to the unknown. The main point here is that never make a decision in the open air; that is, without doing some sort of initial assessment consciously or subconsciously.

13. Show your resourcefulness

“It takes hard work, resourcefulness, perseverance and courage to succeed.”Tommy Hilfiger

There is a reason you were hired and part of that reason involves the opportunity to work with others across several departments within your agency or externally. Resourcefulness is a noble professional attribute that you should cultivate. Most of us get to stay within our comfort zones and anything outside of that triggers different reactions and behaviors in the workplace.

Resourcefulness allows you to quickly and easily penetrate the organization as a new hire more comfortable and ease the transition process. It allows you to immediately find means (apart from your usual job-related responsibilities) to contribute to the works of others. You are not forced to be resourceful in the workplace, but when you work with others it is a good professional habit that will ease your working relationships.