Long before I started my journey in international education, I was an international student. When I look back, there were undoubtedly many elements of my higher education journey as an international student that helped me grow both personally and professionally to the individual I am today. From the student-centered academic philosophy of my professors who helped me out of my shell to the opportunities, I received by getting involved on campus through student organizations and volunteer events. However, the two events that shaped my formative years in the United States most, as an international student, were my first two jobs on campus.
Now, for most international students, when they consider pursuing higher education in the United States or any other part of the world, being able to get practical experience through internships or jobs is undoubtedly a significant attraction to choose a particular institution. Often, the hope or dream is to be able to find an opportunity to work for a Fortune 500 company in a major city in the United States overlooking downtown and telling yourself how sweet the American dream is! Unfortunately, in reality, it takes a lot more to be able to work for your company than you had hoped for, and often the journey begins working at a dining hall on your campus.
Indeed, my first job on campus was working at a fast-food counter in the dining hall. Unlike many of my colleagues (other international graduate students) from India, I had not secured a graduate assistantship. I hence had to look for an opportunity on campus that could help pay some of my living expenses. I certainly had no experience working in a food establishment but was excited to grill my first American hamburger and deep-fry some onion rings. Now working long hours between grease and grilled meats certainly can give you the existential moments questioning the purpose of your life. Still, in so many other moments, you also learn about teamwork, humbleness, and the importance of excellent customer service. Connecting with people while sprinkling salt on fries and wrapping the freshly grilled burger in a relatively warm and greasy place is as challenging as a sales job that one could imagine doing in any profession. Of course, for a long time, I firmly believed that my role in the dining hall could never be a part of a resume or professional experience that I could share with my future employers. Thankfully, I was wrong; employers wanted to see outside of my academic performance what else I could bring to their company. And indeed, the job of working in a dining hall on campus emphasizes the very values of teamwork and building a good organization. My learning moment in that job was that no profession be it the kitchen or the boardroom, is too small or too big for an individual to perform and learn life skills that lead to other opportunities.
My second job on campus was working for the university newspaper as a reporter, which certainly made a lot of sense with my academic degree in communications. However, it was an unpaid job, which made me question sometimes if I should be putting in those hours for a volunteer position. My dilemma of performing a volunteer activity was similar to many other international students who usually tend to seek paid positions for work on campus; however, they sometimes miss on the opportunities that come through volunteer or unpaid positions. My experience of working as a university student reporter helped me connect with many people on and off campus who I interviewed for various articles. I still remember being apprehensive about taking the position, due to my accent and lack of experience. I realized in due time that my accent did not matter, only the questions I raised. Being in a new environment in a new culture, I indeed questioned my ability to succeed more than once. I remember quite well confiding to my graduate advisor (who remains a great mentor) about my doubts about succeeding academically. It was in times like those I gave the same advice to myself that I give to my students today, and that is adaptability is the greatest strength for any international student. It is this strength we bear witness to so many CEOs of major corporations and world leaders who started as international students and now head those organizations and countries.
Reflecting on those two experiences from my journey as an international student, I certainly value the life skills and opportunities that came along through my two campus jobs. The life of an international student certainly comes with many challenges and struggles. Still, I always encourage my international students to never say never to a volunteer opportunity or a job that may lead to building connections with time and perseverance.