Business leaders frequently champion international experience.
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Whether that’s studying or working overseas, they argue it can give you the kind of global insights you need to stand out in an increasingly competitive jobs market.
And their advice is being heeded. Even amid protectionist political rhetoric, people are vying for the opportunity to gain experience abroad. Today in the U.S. alone, there are around 1 million international students, despite Donald Trump’s tightening immigration policies. The majority come from China, as well India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
However, it can be a daunting prospect, not least because it can mean getting your head around a new culture while getting on with your work.
Huixian Ye is one such international student who went through the experience. She moved to the U.S. from China when she was 15, after receiving a partial scholarship to study finance and accounting at Boston University.
Ye now uses those insights to help others as an adviser at Paragon One, a U.S.-based careers platform that pairs recent international graduates with coaches and internships to help them get on the jobs ladder.
She told CNBC Make It her four tips for making a success of your time overseas.
Whether it’s getting your head around a different language or making new contacts, try tackling your fears head on, accepting that there may be challenges along the way, said Ye.
That can be easier said than done, especially for those from more traditional backgrounds where expectations can be high and failure stigmatized. But knowing your shortcomings and asking for help is all part of the self-development process, she said.
“In China, you’re so used to being guided by your parents and being passive about things,” she noted. “But in the U.S. they really support those who ask questions and carve their own path.”
When Ye, previously a straight-A student, arrived in the U.S. with little English and found herself falling behind, she reached out to her professor for advice. “He admired my initiative and paired me with a top student, who helped me pick up the language,” she recalled.
“If you don’t do anything, nothing will change,” she continued. “But if you’re constantly asking for advice, you will get there.”
Even though your new environment may seem strange, Ye recommended immersing yourself in it as early on as possible so you don’t feel like an outsider looking in.
“Just make as many international friends as possible. Diversify your friends and take on extracurricular activities,” said Ye, explaining that it’s the best way to experience the local culture.
As a freshman, Ye specifically requested that she be placed in a dorm with an American roommate to help with that. “She was really helpful and took me home for my first Thanksgiving and first Christmas,” Ye recalled. “She became my American family.”
It’s advice shared by top business leaders, too. Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Company, credits “curiosity” and a willingness to adapt to the local culture with helping her study overseas and progress to the head of the global management consultancy firm.
You’re “not going to be as good as if you open yourself up to understanding some other domains and being curious,” Gadiesh told CNBC in an episode of “Life Hacks Live” earlier this year.
When shaping your career, you may face adversity from those who think they know better. That’s normal, said Ye: “It will take years of education and finding pioneers to convince those who are more traditional.”
But if you can justify your decisions and demonstrate your rationale, you’ll have a better chance of educating others and getting them on side, she explained.
Twice, Ye had to win her father round to her way of thinking. First, when she chose Boston University, preferring the prospect of “city life” over offers from higher ranking colleges. And second, when she rejected an MBA offer on the grounds that she couldn’t justify the expense.
“That was hard for my father to understand, given the prestige. But I was really thinking like an American at the time,” said Ye, highlighting their typically pragmatic approach.
“You should always ask why: There should be reason behind your decisions, rather than just doing things blindly,” she said.
Most of all, though, you should make the most of your time overseas, said Ye.
While the goal will likely be to develop your career, Ye recommended looking at the experience as a “process” rather than simply a means to an end.
“A lot of international students, especially Chinese students, are so hung up on results and getting an internship,” said Ye. “They don’t realize it’s about progress, not profession.”
Now, as an adviser to international students, she said she sees how the benefits of the experience can go far beyond academic results.
“I’ve seen the difference in the students who have some international experience,” she continued, highlighting their success with soft skills. “That gives you a huge competitive advantage, too.”
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