This coming fall, many international students will begin their graduate studies in the United States in the face of a global pandemic and threats to suspend future employment authorization.
It is a stressful time.
But it is also a time that can be filled with opportunity.
After completing my bachelor’s degree last May, I was fortunate enough to utilize my one-year work authorization (known as OPT) to gain full-time work experience at a non-profit organization. After exploring my post-OPT options, I applied to several graduate schools last winter and was accepted into an excellent program for the coming fall in San Diego, a city that has been home for the past four years.
That decision has not only allowed me to continue pursuing my dreams in the United States, but has allowed me to avoid the visa complications that so many foreign students now face in their home countries.
For the students who are able to continue their studies, this summer will be a crucial period to prepare for the workforce upon graduation. This includes honing in-demand skills such as communication, leadership, and problem-solving.
Thankfully, the internet allows us to find innovative ways to develop and market those skills to future employers.
Based on my experiences, here are five productive ways students can prepare for graduate school this summer.
1. Network and Volunteer Your Services for Free
If you are currently outside the U.S. or no longer have work authorization, there are still many ways to gain valuable work experience.
One way is to reach out to your professors and ask if they have any projects that require assistance this summer. Let them know you’re happy to offer your specific skillet for free but also make it clear to them how they can give you value in return. This can be in the form of a recommendation letter, job referral, or written endorsement. If it works out, it can lead to a paid graduate assistant-ship when school begins.
Same can be done with your LinkedIn network. Someone might a have a non-profit organization that needs website development, or an international organization that needs content creators.
Personally, both have worked wonders for me. All it takes is an email, a call, and a positive attitude to learn new skills.
2. Take Free Online Courses
I’ve only recently been welcomed to the world of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).
And it’s fantastic.
You might have seen some of your friends on LinkedIn make a post about a certificate from an Ivy League university, and much of the extra education they’re receiving can be found for free online, though you typically have to pay around $49 to receive a certificate.
Fortunately, Coursera is extending their offer of free certifications until the end of July. That means that you not only get to gain free education, but you get to add a nice certificate from a top university on your LinkedIn profile.
While I have yet to complete a course, I’ve enjoyed Coursera’s online experience so far. I get to set my own schedule and work on my own pace. I’ll be looking to add certifications in personal branding, social impact, and online communication by the end August.
All without spending a dime!
3. Stay Informed
With so much change within the labor market and higher education, it’s important to be in tune with current events.
For example, I recently read about news regarding the current administration’s plan to suspend the OPT program, and started seriously thinking about pursuing a PhD program I had pondered for over a year.
Some great sources include Forbes (Policy), Inside Higher Ed (Education), and Bloomberg (Business/Politics).
While it’s important to stay up to date, make sure you don’t get caught up in a negative loop of news and stories. It’s easy to overthink, especially when your dream is to live and work in the United States.
Just be cautious and be as prepared as you can for what lies ahead.
4. Read, read, and read.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “All I’ve learned, I learned from books.”
Granted, there were no video forms of media back then. But really, this summer is a perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in any subject you wish to learn.
If you’re entering a computer science program, it might be a good time to read books about Artificial Intelligence or coding. In my case, I reached out to several professors in my social innovation program and received a list of recommended summer readings.
Beyond asking professors for academic material, you can also follow recommended book lists by big-thinkers like Bill Gates (tech and the future), Barack Obama (current societal issues), and Oprah Winfrey (fiction/non-fiction).
Though information is readily accessible with our smartphones, reading can help you connect the dots to where you want to take your career. It can also inspire you with new ideas and fresh perspectives.
5. Sharpen Your Personal Brand
Have you ever caught yourself googling people you’ve met at networking events? Chances are, you landed on their LinkedIn page or even better, their personal website.
In the current age that we live in, owning your personal brand is more important than ever.
Because we spend so much time at home, this summer offers you an opportunity to take charge of your online presence. A few ways you can do so is by curating the material you post or share publicly on social media and LinkedIn. Ask yourself, “What are three words that define my personal brand? What are my values?”
Afterwards, it becomes easier to build your brand as you post and share content on social media.
I personally recommend creating your own personal website. A website allows faculty and potential employers to learn not only about your skills and experiences, but your story.
This has worked wonders for me as I have been connecting with professors in recent weeks. It took me only about a week to fully build it. All you have to do is buy a domain, have it hosted, and purchase a plan from website builders like Wix, WordPress, and Squarespace.
Everyone has their own unique story to tell, and your personal brand can differentiate you from everyone else.
All in all, I hope this helps you feel less overwhelmed. It is a challenging time for international and domestic students alike, but I believe that the more we work together, the more opportunities we can create for each other.
Feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter for a look into my thoughts and plans for the summer.
We’re in this together.