Something was troubling Kim Ead, the international counselor in UVM’s Career Center.
The center regularly worked with UVM’s Alumni Relations office to connect domestic students with alumni via job shadows and events. But for practical reasons of distance, cost and the challenge of maintaining robust alumni networks overseas, especially for a university that only recently began building its international enrollment, UVM “didn’t do this is as practice to support our international students” in their home countries, where many eventually return to work, Ead says.
With the backing of the Career Center and UVM’s Global Gateway Program, which funds her position, Ead decided the time had come to give international students the same opportunities to connect with alumni in their country of origin -- enabling them to explore career options and make valuable contacts – that domestic students enjoyed in theirs.
Working with the Alumni Relations office, she used LinkedIn to track down all 86 UVM alumni living in China, the home country for a little over half of UVM’s international students, and painstakingly put together a job shadow and alumni events program in the country that rolled out over the summer.
In the process she broke new ground. After querying colleagues at a best practices webinar she participated in organized by the international committee of the National Career Development Association, Ead came to startling conclusion.
“This is a totally novel idea,” she says.
Helping international students launch careers in their home countries -- where their English language skills and knowledge of American culture frequently give them a leg up -- is arguably something all U.S. universities with international enrollments should be doing, for reasons of simple arithmetic.
While international students are able to work legally in the U.S. for a year after they graduate, using a special Optional Practical Training visa (STEM graduates can work for three years), they must apply for the H-1B visa to stay longer.
The catch? All H-1B applicants are “put in a lottery,” Ead says, and have only a small chance of receiving the visa.
“Last year, 85,000 people got them,” she says, “but 236,000 applied.”
What’s more, adds Stephanie Loscalzo -- an international academic adviser in the Grossman School of Business, who accompanied Ead to China -- about half of the students she sees say they eventually want to return to their home countries to work.
While the summer program was essentially a pilot, it laid a solid foundation for future efforts.
Ead persuaded 14 alums working in China to offer job shadows and worked with the Alumni Relations office to schedule three alumni events, two in Beijing and one in Shanghai, where Elieen Dudley in the office had established an affinity group.
At one of the Beijing events, held at Bloomberg, which has a large office in that city, UVM alum Justin Oakes (’08, business administration/finance) served as the host. In addition to the UVM alumni who were able to come, Oakes convinced 25 Bloomberg employees, all Chinese nationals, to mix and mingle with the five UVM students who attended.
It was a rich experience, according to one of the students, junior Chen Yang, a business administration major with a concentration in finance from Jinan, a large city about five hours south of Beijing.
Talking with an HR person at the company, she got “a lot of suggestions on how to get jobs later,” she says, that included this tip: allow people you know in China, like Oakes, to email companies on your behalf when you’re looking for an internship.
To gain perspective on how to best serve UVM’s Chinese students, Ead and Loscalzo also met with career counselors, faculty and higher education administrators at three universities in Beijing and picked up a wealth of useful information, some of it defying stereotypes. Counselors were more focused than she anticipated on “strength-based interests, trying to figure out what the students wanted and what they're interested in,” Loscalzo said.
There was also a good deal more back and forth with parents than either Ead or Loscalzo expected; the two are sharing that message far and wide at UVM.
One last insight they gleaned could have an impact on participation rates in future alumni events held overseas.
A faculty member at Beijing Normal University told them to “make sure you have international students involved in leadership roles,” Ead says, so other students can build confidence and “see that they can also serve in these roles.”
The university had already gone down that path, setting aside budget for two Chinese students to work in the Career Center this year. That will go a long way toward speeding the learning curve for the many international students who have only a hazy idea of what a job shadow is, according to Ead.
With a similar jump in awareness among Chinese alums in China, based on the successful events of the summer, and the experience she gained, Ead expects the number of students and alumni participating in future alumni programs abroad to grow dramatically.
Future efforts will be aided by the UVM Alumni Association, where staff also benefitted from the China experience, and whose network of international alumni grows stronger every year, as the university continues to prioriitize and increase international enrollment.
While in China, Ead and Loscalzo also met with prospective students and families at an admissions event in Shanghai sponsored by the Global Gateway Program.
“We talked a lot about careers and graduates and my current pitch, which was based a lot on this trip -- expanding our alumni networks around the world,” Ead says.
As an American university offering support for international students not only while they’re in school, but after they graduate, that message -- as unique as it was powerful -- must have struck home.