Cultural Blind Spots in Career Counseling with International Students

By Satomi Yaji Chudasama

The job search process for international students in the United States is challenging at the outset. In spite of the limited number of work visas available to them, a large number of international students continue to seek employment in this market. Career services professionals have made significant efforts to address their needs for support in the job search.  In addition to these efforts, I believe that the awareness of certain cultural aspects highlighted in this article will enhance the effectiveness of these interactions.

This article outlines seven cultural differences and adjustment issues that can impact the career counseling experience. Please note that given the diversity of this population, not all factors are applicable to everyone, and personal differences must be considered.

The Seven Cultural Blind Spots:

1. Individualism vs. Collectivism

A challenge that some students encounter, especially those from collective societies, is the use of ‘I...' sentences in describing their preferences. For example, when I ask why one is pursuing a technical career, the typical answers are "when you do well academically, you have to be a technical person," or "my family expects me to go into technology," and so forth. One student reported with surprise that employers had asked her why she chose her major and she had trouble answering that question. "You are expected to major in XYZ," she confessed.

2. Self-Esteem

"People treat me as if I don't know anything because I don't speak English fluently, but I am a Ph.D. student." Such experiences can be frustrating for students. What they need most at this juncture is empathy and reassurance from the counselor. However, every once in a while I come across students whose self-esteem is hurt due to ‘insensitive' comments relating to their ‘foreignness', ‘accent', etc. Such situations call for confidence boosting measures on the part of the counselor. Additionally, it is important to bear in mind that certain non-verbal behaviors of international students may be perceived as ‘lack of confidence' within the American cultural context. These behaviors may stem from individual self-presentation styles, influenced by their culture. It is a good idea to address these non-verbal behaviors as part of the career counseling interaction.

3. Support System

Not surprisingly, many international students arrive in the U.S. without a support network and have to establish one from scratch.  Professional networks that career counselors emphasize, however, can be confusing to many. Some claim, "People here don't care about others. They are too busy with their own priorities," while others say, "I don't know what to do." It is important for the counselor to remind them that networking is crucial to the adjustment process and worth the time and effort invested, and then facilitate the process.

4. Implication of Academic Success

Academic performance is the most important factor that employers look for in candidates in some countries. Students from those countries are anxious to maintain a high GPA and can easily overlook other vital aspects of their personal and professional profile that may be attractive to employers. Therefore, educating students on the expectations of American employers and helping them focus on their strengths beyond academics is critical to the overall strategy to realize their full marketability.

5. Sociocultural and Educational Adjustment

For some international students from culturally distant countries, it is not unusual to take anywhere from a few months to over a year before feeling adjusted to the U.S. society. They have to work towards getting accustomed to a new educational system and sociocultural norms while coping with culture shock that may require reframing self-identity. Master's degree students in one to two year programs looking for internships may especially be going through an overwhelming adjustment process while also learning job search norms that may differ significantly from those of their countries.

6. Who to Talk With About Careers

Some societies value masculinity, whereas others emphasize deference to authority or the elder. Several surveys and focus groups conducted by myself and my former colleagues at Syracuse University with a sample of over 400 international students revealed that many of them prefer to speak with the elder and/or male figures about careers. When encountering this mind-set, it is helpful to emphasize the array of tools provided by career services offices and the expertise that career professionals have to offer to facilitate the interactions with them.

7. Saving Face

‘Saving face' is important in some cultures. Some students you work with have landed in the U.S. with much expectation from their home countries and sometimes themselves. For some of them, success includes employment in America regardless of how long they intend to stay. The shortage of work visas creates a tougher job market for them and therefore having a back-up plan is important. Some alternate plans may include employment in a third country or their home countries. Whatever the plan is, it is helpful to identify sources of pressure, types of expectations, values that make them feel successful, and strategies to tackle these challenges.

Tips for Career Counselors:

  • Focus on strengths and help students articulate them.
  • Create opportunities to share their experiences with other international students and international alumni.
  • Offer and support networking opportunities.
  • Reach out to them early by collaborating with the international students office.
  • Treat them as unique individuals; consider them as experts on themselves, including their cultural experiences.
  • Encourage them to get involved in something non-academic.
  • Try understanding their lives overall (this is a nice way to show you care) and identify their strengths and challenges. This allows you to utilize a more holistic approach and find other areas in which they may need assistance.



Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.

Satomi Yaji Chudasama, NCC, MCC, GCDF is Assistant Director for Liberal Arts & Engineering Career Counseling at PrincetonUniversity. She has worked with the career services offices of several public and private universities in the United States. Chudasama received her MS in Counselor Education with a concentration in Counseling in a Higher Education Setting (currently Student Affairs Counseling) from SyracuseUniversity. She can be reached at schudasa@princeton.edu.

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Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 07/01/2014 at 08:11 PM

Thanks for this excellent summary about cultural identity issues for career counselors. I have also found huge differences in terms of class and gender with people from the same country. If career counselors want to know more about how people think, they can Google doing business with....and put in the country. This will yield a lot of useful information. Companies that do business internationally have to be well versed about these concerns.

Karen Kowal   on Wednesday 07/02/2014 at 11:30 AM

Satomi - Thank you for sharing your insights regarding the international student population. I really liked that you have had over 400 students participate in surveys or focus groups as it seems to provide a very good summary of what the differences are (may be) between cultures.
Karen Kowal
Career Development - Arizona State University
Ira A Fulton Schools of Engineering

Claire Smith Victor   on Saturday 07/05/2014 at 08:47 AM

As Career Counselors working with international students we should also consider religious beliefs and its influence on career choice.

Career Counselor/Educator
United Arab Emirates 1999-2013

Claire Smith Victor   on Saturday 07/05/2014 at 08:48 AM

As Career Counselors working with international students we should also consider religious beliefs and its influence on career choice.

Career Counselor/Educator
United Arab Emirates 1999-2013

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.