Preparing International Students for Success

Professional development programs at IIT Stuart make sure that international students are ready for their first jobs in the U.S. market.
Preparing International Students for Success

The numbers of international students studying business at U.S. schools are truly impressive—and continu-ally rising. In the past decade, inter-national enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities has grown by 32 percent, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors  report. Twenty-two percent of these international students, at both the under-graduate and graduate level, are studying business. Much of that growth was driven by a 23 percent increase in Chinese students, who constitute just over one-fifth of the total international student population.

While international study can be a powerful and defining experience for business students, it also offers them intense challenges. Many struggle to communicate in English, master classroom dynamics, and understand Western cultural mores. Academic institutions also face challenges integrating international students into the school population and helping them find jobs once they graduate.

At Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business in Chicago, we are enrolling increasing numbers of international students, particularly at the graduate level, where the educational experience is fast-paced and highly compressed. Because four out of five of our international students intend to exercise their post-graduation U.S. work authorizations (i.e., Optional Practical Training), we know we have to prepare them to compete for jobs in the open marketplace. That means we must teach them soft skills as well as technical competencies.

In recent years, we have developed a multi-pronged co-curricular approach that supports these students as they progress through our six master’s-level programs and helps them build workplace readiness. IIT Stuart’s administration, academic program directors, Career Management Center, and Division of Student Affairs collaborate on our integrated suite of Professional Development Initiatives, which build competencies in four specific areas focused on preparing students for the workplace:

  • Communication. Students work on their basic English proficiency learn how to improve social interactions, and strengthen their presentation skills.
  • Acculturation. Students improve their understanding of general U.S. culture as well as workplace norms.
  • Job search skills. Students learn how to write résumés, conduct themselves during job interviews, and develop search strategies.
  • Self-awareness. Students focus on appropriately aligning their abilities with their professional goals.

We are already seeing signs that this integrated, academically grounded approach is significantly benefiting our students and helping to prime them for professional achievement. One reason the program has been so successful, we believe, is that it is truly a collaborative venture between our academic and co-curricular teams. Program directors and Student Affairs staff meet regularly to ensure the holistic development of our students and prepare them to enter the job market.

An ACE in the Classroom

Key to IIT Stuart’s Professional Development Initiatives is the Advancing Career and Education (ACE) Program. It is now a graduation requirement for all first-year, full-time students who have not completed at least six months of professional work in the U.S. The two-semester program consists of two concurrent elements: a 90-minute weekly classroom component and a 100-hour workplace assignment.

Students enroll in ACE classes during their first and second semesters and meet once a week in small sections. The curriculum is taught by members of our Student Affairs staff, who are professionals in academic advising, career services, and student engagement and leadership. Much of the coursework is offered in multiple-mode learning styles, such as online tutorials, videos, and take-home quizzes, to allow non-native English speakers to review course content in various mediums at their own pace.

The acculturation material covers graduate-level study in the U.S., cultural differences, and culture shock. In the personal development sessions, students learn about setting goals, maintaining a good attitude, managing time and stress, and resolving conflicts. The classes on U.S. workplace culture delve into organizational structure, ethics, politics, workplace relationships, etiquette, and teamwork and motivation. The material on job search skills focuses on résumé development, networking, informational interviewing, job search strategy, and interviewing skills. In the course-work on communication, students learn about interpersonal communication and presentation skills.

Our career services team had long offered optional skills development workshops, like résumé critiques and Networking 101, assuming that students would intrinsically recognize the value of these pro-grams and want to participate. In reality, we found that many of the students who needed these work-shops the most simply didn’t attend. And while this was true for students in general, it was particularly the case for our international students. By making ACE mandatory, we ensure that all our students have the opportunity to hone their competitive job search skills.

The ACE classroom environment varies from session to session with lectures, guest speakers, discussions, interactive group exercises, and student presentations. There is an emphasis on public speaking and presentation; over the course of two semesters, all students deliver four presentations to the class so that they have the opportunity not only to build their speaking skills, but also to gain confidence in thei English proficienc. The ACE course-work ultimately prepares students to address a variety of professional situations, including some—like informational interviews—that might not be common in their home countries.

Last fall, IIT Stuart offered 15 ACE class sections, some taught by adjuncts and some by members of our Student Affairs team. Nadya Lesova, one of our graduate academic advisors, finds that the AC teaching assignment has been a source of professional development for her. “Working with students in a classroom setting helps me better understand their needs, their stressors, and the ways they learn best,” she says. “Now, when I advise students, I think of their needs more broadly. I also find that my role a an instructor builds my credibility with students. ”

An ACE at Work

In addition to attending a weekly class, every ACE student completes a 100-hour, unpaid professional assignment in a Chicago-area business over the course of two semesters. We currently partner with more than 100 for-profit and not-for-profit organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to entrepreneurial startups.

Assignments vary widely and include projects such as data analysis, database development, competitive analysis, social media implementation, and event planning. Many partners utilize multiple-student teams to tackle larger projects. It is important to note that the workplace assignment is valuable not because of the project work itself, but because it exposes international students to American business culture while giving them a chance to practice the skills they learn in the ACE program.

We believe it’s essential for our international students to acquire real-world workplace experience if they’re going to successfully compete for second-year internships and postgraduate jobs; however, immigration policies require them to complete two full semesters of school before they can work or intern in the U.S. By making ACE an academic program, we’ve been able to provide students with a substantive, hands-on workplace experience during their first year of study while still complying with immigration regulations.

Students have found these ACE work experiences extremely valuable. MBA student Weihan Ni had worked in American companies in China for three years before coming to the U.S., but he found the working style in America to be unlike the style in China. Differences were particularly apparent in areas “like professionalism and how people express their concerns to each other,” he says. “My experiences in both the ACE classes and the work assignment were very necessary to me as I prepared to work in this country. ”

Focus on Communication

As international enrollment grows, we believe it’s more critical than ever to take a holistic approach to the student experience by supporting a student’s academic, personal, and professional growth. That’s one of the reasons we created the second part of our professional development initiative, the Professional Communication Advancement (PCA) Program. PCA builds on the traditional curriculum for English as a Second Language (ESL), but it goes beyond providing linguistic help to non-native speakers. It also helps students develop a broad range of cultural and professional expertise, as well as other soft skills.

By making ACE an academic program, we’ve been able to provide students with a hands-on workplace experience during their first yea of study.

Like many schools, IIT Stuart bases part of its admissions criteria on tests like TOEFL and IELTS that gauge language proficiency. Even so, we find that many students lack the English-language communication skills that would allow them to be competitive in the job market. Rather than rely on standardized test scores to deter-mine students’ ESL developmental needs, we use a set of specialized assessments, conducted on site, to evaluate how well each candidate has mastered listening comprehension, speaking, business writing, and pronunciation skills. We also administer computer tests to deter-mine proficiency in academic writing, listening, and comprehension.

Every new incoming student who is not a native English speaker and who does not hold a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. institution is required to participate in the assessment process. PCA program director Tracey McGee comments, “Our focus moves beyond vocabulary and grammar. We consider how well students are able to communicate ideas, conduct conversations using real-life English, and use complex sentence structures.”

Following the assessments, each student is given a recommended series of course modules tailored to address his or her individual needs. Students take up to four of the eight modules we offer in areas such as listening/speaking/presentation, pronunciation, academic writing, and business writing. Because a central tenet of ESL instruction is that language must be taught in a cultural context, all eight PCA modules also incorporate cross-cultural knowledge, norms, and expressions. This provides students with another opportunity—beyond the ACE program—to practice their communication skills and improve their cultural competency.

Our PCA instructors all have advanced degrees in teaching English as a second language, and most have backgrounds in business. This enables students to learn relevant business-specific vocabulary with great depth and nuance. Because we assess students’ competencies before and after each semester, we can tell that our individualized approach has yielded strong positive results. Eighty-eight percent of PCA students made significant improvements in their written and/or spoken English abilities. Most of them also made immeasurable gains in understanding both the American culture and the complexities of communication.

What’s Next?

We know we’re not the only school looking for ways to help international students enter American business culture. At a recent conference for the MBA Career Services Council, we gave a presentation on the ACE component of our Professional Development Initiatives, and it was clear that many of our colleagues have been experiencing similar challenges with their international students. While we received encouraging feedback about the approach we’ve adopted, we will continue to modify our initiatives as we learn more about our students and the changing needs of employers.

We are planning a comprehensive assessment plan for the ACE program that will consider program goals, learning outcomes, direct and indirect measures, and performance thresholds. We expect to implement the assessment plan during the 2012–2013 academic year, and we’ll use the results as part of our continuous curriculum review.

But we’ve also realized that our Professional Development Initiatives can be used in other applications—for instance, in programs aimed at domestic students who have little professional work experience. These students could surely benefit from enhanced career services training and pre-internship workplace opportunities.

We’ve seen how transformative the ACE and PCA programs can be. Not only do students emerge with more self-confidence, competitive job skills, and useful work experience, they are better pre-pared to communicate their value to potential employers. We believe other business schools can use this integrated approach to energize their programs the way it has energized ours.

ACE and the MBA

IIT Stuart offers six master’s-level degree programs, with our MBA program accounting for 15 percent of our total enrollment. The relatively limited number of incoming, full-time MBA students this past fall provided the ideal platform for us to pilot a degree-specific version of ACE that would target the particular needs of MBA students. Using the existing ACE curriculum as a foundation, we added three new components specifically for MBA students:

  • We expanded the class time by 30 minutes so students can focus on leadership studies. They profile global leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship and analyze the secrets to their success.
  • We incorporated a widely used behavioral assessment tool to help students determine their ideal roles in organizations. The tool also aids them in practicing self-reflection, giving and receiving feedback, and working with coaches to set specific career objectives. Additionally, the assessment results give us insights into ways we can place the students into ACE work assignments that closely align with their strengths and interests.
  • We decided to place all MBA students with startups or incubator companies as part of their ACE pre-internship assignments. This allows them to add value more quickly and have more intense learning experiences.

Between now and graduation in the spring of 2013, we will provide additional coaching sessions to these MBA students. We also will follow the students’ postgraduate placement rates to assess the effectiveness of this targeted approach.

Suzanne Weiss is assistant dean and senior lecturer at the Stuart School of Business at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Ana Rossetti is the director of student affairs at the school, and Luigi Pecoraro is director of the Career Management Center. Stacey Draper provided research and editorial support.