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Beyond borders: How to elevate the international student experience

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December 6, 2023
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6 min
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Today, universities are aiming to improve employability outcomes for all their graduates (including international students) by facilitating the integration of theory with practical experience and by developing students.

To do this, higher education institutions are putting a renewed emphasis on enhancing their offerings. But international students, while eager to embrace new academic horizons, often encounter challenges from cultural adjustments to visa-related hurdles.

In this article, we'll explore the challenges that international students face, illuminate their journeys, and explore transformative strategies universities can employ to bridge the gap, ensuring every student, regardless of background, receives a truly equitable, diverse, and enriching education.

Key takeaways

  • Visa-related restrictions present significant hurdles, especially when international students seek local work opportunities.
  • Without real-world experience, international students may be perceived as less competitive in the job market, even if they possess the required academic qualifications.
  • Innovative platforms like Riipen are emerging as solutions, bridging the gap between academic learning and tangible industry experiences, especially for international students facing visa constraints.

The broader implications of limited work opportunities

For international students, limited work opportunities are not just immediate barriers; they can cascade into long-term implications affecting their overall career progression. 

This is about more than just missing out on some tasks or roles; it's about missing out on authentic, real-world work experiences that help turn theory into actionable skills. And with 4 out of 10 international students wanting to stay in the US after graduation to work for a few years, these experiences are crucial. 

In fact, 34% of international students felt they weren't prepared to explore a career in the US because it's difficult to get a job or internship, and there's little help with knowing how to get CPT, OPT, and other work visas.

This gap can become even more pronounced when these students find themselves competing with peers who have had the advantage of blending their academic journey with practical work insights. 

Employers often lean towards graduates who are "work-ready" – those who not only bring knowledge to the table but also a nuanced understanding of industry dynamics, teamwork, and real-world problem-solving. 

Without this hands-on experience, international students might appear to be less competitive, despite their potential. And it's been reported that graduates who start off underemployed will remain that way for the majority of their careers.

Additionally, every job or internship is a door to expanding one's professional network. Fewer work experiences mean fewer contacts in the industry, which can be invaluable when navigating the competitive job market post-graduation.

On top of that, repeated encounters with such barriers can erode the confidence of international students. They may begin to question their own capabilities or sense of belonging, not due to any actual deficiency on their part, but because of the limited avenues they've had to demonstrate and refine their talents.

In essence, while the initial obstacle might seem like just a lack of work opportunities, the cascading effect of this limitation can redefine and limit the career trajectories of international students. 

Understanding the international student journey

When international students arrive on campus, they have similar aspirations to their domestic peers: to participate in diverse and enriching learning experiences. They envision a journey brimming with new friendships, academic growth, cultural exchanges, and skill-building and career exploration opportunities that will shape their futures. 

However, these students understand that their journey, though paved with opportunities, also presents a unique set of challenges. Here are just a few they must face:

  • Cultural adaptation: Beyond just adapting to a new academic environment, they have to adjust to a new cultural environment. This includes understanding local customs, traditions, and daily communication nuances unfamiliar to them yet second nature to their peers.
  • Educational adjustments: The teaching methodologies, assessment techniques, and even classroom dynamics can vastly differ from what they have experienced in their home countries. 
  • Logistical hurdles: Perhaps the most pressing concern is the restrictions imposed by visa regulations. While their domestic peers are free to explore work and paid internship opportunities, international students often find their options are limited due to visa limitations. This could deprive them of authentic, real-world work experiences to build skills, increase their employability, and establish an in-country professional network. 
  • Networking challenges: Building a local network from scratch, in a land where they might not have any prior contacts, can be a daunting task. Their domestic counterparts may have previously established professional connections, be it through family, jobs held, volunteering, or school alumni.

Recognizing this distinct journey of international students is the first step for institutions to ensure that they truly provide an equitable, diverse, and enriching experience for every student, regardless of their background.

Transformative strategies for a world-class international student experience

For decades, the US was the top choice for higher education; however, the academic landscape is changing. Today, the number of international students studying in Australia, Canada, and the UK is 50% higher than in the US

These innovative universities are adopting different strategies to help them recruit and retain international students. Here are some of the strategies that you can adopt to help international students thrive academically, personally, and professionally.

1. Bridge the real-world gap with experiential learning

International students still need access to skill development and assistance in preparing for work, so it's important for institutions to find alternative ways to provide that world-class work experience. Experiential learning does this. 

It offers a way to connect classroom learning with tangible real-world scenarios. Platforms like Riipen are at the forefront of this movement, enabling students to undertake authentic projects with industry partners that have the potential to give them a genuine taste of professional life while still in the academic environment. 

2. Craft inclusive campuses that truly value diversity

In a world that's more connected than ever, it's vital for institutions to foster an atmosphere where international students have a strong sense of belonging and feel just as integral as their domestic counterparts. 

International students face many challenges that can result in feelings of exclusion, or worse, isolation from their peers. It's not just about tangible experiences that they miss out on, but the invaluable local connections, mentorship, and camaraderie that often come with it.

Platforms like Riipen offer a solution. These work-based learning platforms have proven instrumental in dismantling barriers for international students. By facilitating real-world project collaborations with industry partners, they grant students access to tangible work experiences and provide a gateway to building local and national professional networks. 

This, in turn, aids in fostering a genuine sense of belonging, ensuring that international students are integrated seamlessly into the fabric of the campus community.

3. Leverage technology for global connectivity

Historically, many colleges and universities have been tethered to local networks, limited by geography and conventional connections; however, advancements in technology have opened the doors to an expansive international network spanning diverse industries and regions. 

By leveraging technology-driven platforms such as Riipen, colleges and universities can promise a truly global educational experience and provide equitable access to rich and diverse course offerings and experiential learning experiences for all learners. 

4. Ensure continuous support and adaptability

Transitioning to a new academic culture, miles away from home, is no small feat. Universities that prioritize dedicated support systems for international students ensure smoother transitions. From mentorship programs to dedicated international student advisory services, a consistent support structure ensures these students are never navigating their challenges alone.

By being adaptable and responsive to the unique challenges these students face, institutions can truly make them feel at home, enhancing their overall experience and academic success. 

5. Promote equitable skill development opportunities

It's a well-documented challenge: many international students face work visa restrictions, inhibiting their ability to gain hands-on experience. However, with platforms like Riipen, exemplified by successes such as UC Riverside's use case, there's renewed hope. 

These platforms offer project-based experiences, allowing international students to work with industry partners on authentic projects, bypassing traditional work restrictions, and ensuring an equitable platform for skill development.

For a closer look at these programs in action, be sure to check out this case study.

Join the movement toward equitable learning

International students bring a wealth of diverse experiences, cultural insights, and perspectives, making them invaluable assets to any institution. However, without the right resources and support, these students can face unnecessary barriers that stifle their potential.

Institutions around the globe are recognizing the power of platforms like Riipen in bridging the gap between academic learning and real-world experience, especially for international students who might be at a disadvantage due to visa restrictions.

For example, the Schools of Business and Information and Communications Technology at Saskatchewan Polytechnic use Riipen extensively to provide work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities to students. 

Kristen Craig, an educator at the institution, had this to say, "It is especially important for our international students who often have no Canadian work experience or industry connections. The WIL experiences provided through Riipen have provided a richer learning experience for our students."

Additionally, Lisa Miller, Director of International and Professional Programs at the University of California, was able to expand her institution’s WBL opportunities and level the playing field for international students through Riipen’s platform. 

With access to over 31,000 industry partners around the world, Riipen gives educators the ability to enrich their courses with authentic experiences that every student has access to.

For more information about Riipen's platform, schedule a free demo.

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