Finito mentor Pervin Shaikh gives her tips to international students studying in the UK
Armed with grand ambitions and hopes of new opportunities and success, studying abroad can be a life-changing experience – and for many, this may well be their first time away from home too. However, the reality hits home very quickly, especially during the first month of arrival—many experience a culture shock as they adjust to a new way of living and studying. Over the last four years, I gained many insights whilst working with hundreds of Chinese students who came over to the UK to study. My hope in writing this article is that these insights may be useful to any international student.
The first thing to say is that cross-cultural communication is a vital thing to learn. Stronger professional and personal bonds get built when there is clear communication between different people from different backgrounds and cultures. Learning to communicate with peers and seniors takes a bit of effort, especially if you’re not confident in speaking with others proactively. It’s ok to disagree, but what’s important is communicating your ideas and thoughts clearly, succinctly and respectfully.
It’s also worth noting that many international students are surprised as to how open their UK peers are and can discuss various topics. However, it is important to respect boundaries. Colleagues may not become your friend, and not everyone will be willing to talk openly about their personal lives, so be mindful. That should go hand in hand with adopting a ‘can-do’ attitude. In the UK, it’s essential to proactively find solutions to problems and then communicate the answers to the different stakeholders. It’s also acceptable to reach out to the stakeholders to share your ideas too. This way, you build your team’s trust and become a ‘go to’ person for others as you share your knowledge and expertise.
In the UK, it’s especially vital to develop a network, both online and offline. My experiences have taught me, for instance, that the Chinese still have a hierarchical culture, and juniors do not approach seniors directly. However, networking in the U.K. is encouraged because it leads to learning, growth and development – but it does need to be be done respectfully and without high expectations. One word of advice when reaching out to people is to be mindful of their time. Remember, the person you’re trying to connect with has different time pressures to you and may not respond immediately – and that’s been especially the case during the Covid-19 pandemic where people are often stretched in ways it might be hard to imagine as you send your email.
I’d also advise never to underestimate the power of LinkedIn. People are far more likely to read the message if it’s well written, with the proper salutation and tone; otherwise, the message will get ignored 99% of the time. However tempting it might feel to ‘click & connect’, don’t do it. It suggests you couldn’t be bothered to approach properly. I would recommend putting yourself in their shoes and asking yourself: “Why should they even bother to give me their attention in the first place?” But better still, ask yourself what value you can offer them.
Meanwhile, when it comes to applying for jobs, don’t be put off applying to jobs because you don’t think you’re good enough or don’t think your English is fluent. With practice, you’ll learn to master the technique, especially when working with others online or when faced with video job interviews. You’ll have access to additional support and resources, but it’s your responsibility to organise yourself and figure the best support for you. For example, if you don’t feel confident in public speaking, join a public speaking group. If you have a job interview coming up, try practising on your own or with a group of friends or peers.
It’s easy to stay with people you know or in your safe experience zone. However, that’s not where learning takes place. To broaden your knowledge and confidence, try volunteering or participating in extracurricular activities. When you immerse yourself into the British way of life, you’ll better understand the cultural understanding, plus you’ll have something to talk about when you meet new people. This way, you’ll learn to communicate with different people, solve problems, and develop new ways of doing things. It becomes a win/win.
All in all, studying and working abroad can be an exciting time for many international students. It’s also an excellent opportunity to build confidence, a global mindset and life long friends and experiences. However, it requires a shift in attitude, effort and determination to make the experience work best for you. You owe it to yourself to use your time well.