Career Tips for International Students

From F-1 Visa to the IE Leader

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In honor of International Day of Education, we are thrilled to bring you a special episode featuring an exclusive interview with Dr. Fanta Aw, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA. 🎙️

This episode features an insightful conversation with Dr. Fanta Aw, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA. 🌍 Join the discussion on Dr. Aw’s remarkable journey from international student to a leader in education. 📚 Gain valuable insights on change, networking, and staying informed in the dynamic world of international education. 🌟 Plus, Dr. Aw shares advice for international students pursuing careers in the U.S. 🌐 Begin your journey by getting help finding jobs today at! Don’t miss out on this enriching discussion!

—NAFSA Special Resources—

  1. NAFSA’s flagship publication
  2. the NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo
  3. NAFSA Public Policy Blog and Public Policy Year-in-Review 2023

—-Episode Transcript—-

Kwan: Welcome everyone to our second episode, season three of a career guide for international students podcast brought to you by ICAway.

Kwan: I’m your host, Kwan Segal. Today’s episode is dedicated to the International Day of Education established by the United Nations to promote peace and development through education. And I am truly honored to have Dr Fanta Aw,

Kwan: the Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA, as my guest today. Fanta, I’m so thrilled that you accepted my request to be on this show.

Dr. Fanta Aw: It’s wonderful to be with you today. Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to be with you. Thank you so

Kwan: much for all your support and your leadership in the international education field. I’m sure that lots of students and also educators will learn a lot from you today.

Kwan: Because your background as an international student and right now you are the leader in the international education field, I would love to learn a little bit about your journey from being an international student to becoming a leader in this field. Can you please share with us a little bit?

Dr. Fanta Aw: So I.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Like many came to the United States to study as an international student on an F1 visa and happened to be started to come and study at American University in Washington, D.C. And like many international students, typical wanted to study business. So I did my degree in accounting with finance as sort of part of that when I graduated, wanted to go overseas, wanted to go close to home and study and come back.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Well, while I was a student, I was very involved with the International Student Association, and being part of the International Student Association meant that I had the opportunity to engage with students, but also to engage with the International Student Office, and I often say to people that the International Student Office was my home away from home.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Um, so as an international student, we all know the International Student Office as a leader within the International Student Association. We work even more closely with the International Student Association, and they asked me at one point to volunteer. And help with orientation and then after that, um, I started to work on a part time basis when I came back for graduate school, came back to that same office and started to work in the office.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Helping students with advising with their F1 visas and things like that. So that’s really how I started in the field of international education was by volunteering. In the international student office, then by working there full time, and then moving to lots of different roles within that office. So where, where, by the end I became the director of the office.

Dr. Fanta Aw: As I was the director of the international student scholar services office, working across the university with all of the departments, the schools, the deans and others to ensure that students who were coming to the university. Could find a home at American University the same way that I had found my home.

Dr. Fanta Aw: And you couldn’t would know that there’s an office that is dedicated to supporting them and making sure that they thrive. So that’s really how I got into the field. Um, and then fast forward again, you know, when you’re in the field. You know, you’re often told you need professional development, you need your network.

Dr. Fanta Aw: And I heard very early on that I needed to know NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, and I went to the, to the regional conference, Region 8, and there I met just an incredible group of, of professionals dedicated to the field of international education. I learned from them, attended sessions, and And then I was able to know what my network was, and I was able to leverage that network throughout the time that was in the field.

Dr. Fanta Aw: That was the 2nd thing was really getting, getting exposed to the breadth of the field by meeting other professionals in the field through NAFSA. And then I started to volunteer with NAFSA as a volunteer leader with NAFSA on issues having to do with public policy on DEI and other things later on, got onto the board of NAFSA was on the board.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Um, you know, for a period of time for about 8 years, and in that process became president of the board, um, chair and president of the board, um, you know, so did that for a period of time. Then after that, I kind of transitioned to move into, um, a different portfolio that involved. Student affairs, DEI work undergraduate enrollment.

Dr. Fanta Aw: So, was kind of a little bit away from international education for a short period of time. And then this opportunity came up with NAFSA. Um, which was, which was just last year, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the role. And so I’m back really on a full time basis back in the field. And it’s wonderful to be back in the field of international education.

Dr. Fanta Aw: I often say it speaks to me because it’s about my story is my journey and it provides me an opportunity to be of service.

Kwan: That’s such an amazing and inspiring story. And your story reminded me of lots of international students that I coached that, you know, during like on campus job, they work in the international student services office and they feel so passionate about it, even when they have the degree in computer science or MBA, and I’m so thrilled to learn about your journey.

Kwan: And, um, I’m sure that this going to be such an inspiration for lots of students that want to pay it forward to the international student community. So thank you so much for sharing. And now let us move forward to the next question, because you are someone that have achieved so much in the field of international education, what advice would you give to the fellow international education professionals this year because I feel that it could be another challenging year.

Kwan: Are there any specific trends or challenges that they should be mindful of.

Dr. Fanta Aw: For many of us, we get into the field of international education because we believe in the mission. We’re passionate about the issues related to international education. And many times we really want to be of service.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Want to be a service to students, want to be a service to our institutions and all of that. So my advice to those who are in the field of international education is that change is the only constant. And we know that because we’ve lived in so many levels. So, don’t be afraid of change because change can be seen as an opportunity.

Dr. Fanta Aw: And so think about the opportunity side of change and embrace it. We live in a world that is always changing and our ability to know how to adapt to the change is important. So, for us. You know, some of the questions we have to ask ourselves is, okay, we’re hearing about artificial intelligence. What is the role of artificial intelligence in our work?

Dr. Fanta Aw: How can artificial intelligence help uplift our work? And how do we mitigate for the downside of it? So that’s just an example of change that is a rapid change that’s taking place. And the question is, what does that mean for our work? Geopolitics is taking place in our work. There’s a lot of geopolitics.

Dr. Fanta Aw: There’s some major elections coming up this year in lots of different places in the world. And we know that these elections matter because they have policy implications. And this policy implications can have direct effect on our work. So, the ability to be informed, to be educated. And also, in many ways, for those who have the ability to engage civically, it’s important to have civic engagement.

Dr. Fanta Aw: That’s the other thing that I advise those who are in the field of international education. So, don’t be afraid of change. Get involved because it actually matters. Your voice matters. Your vote matters. Those pieces matter. And so, the ability to understand advocacy work is an important part of the work.

Dr. Fanta Aw: And then the third advice that I gave those who are in the field of international education is, Leverage your network. This is a field where people are incredibly generous with their expertise, um, with their knowledge and their skills. So the ability to have a robust, healthy network of folks who share your passion, share your vision is important.

Dr. Fanta Aw: So make sure you cultivate those, those networks and make sure that they’re authentic. Um, make sure that you really, um, nurture those relationships because relationships matters tremendously and none of us are able to do anything by ourselves. We do it always together. So, knowing who you can work with, knowing who you can count on, knowing who can be your, who can support, who can mentor, who can be your sponsor, that’s an important part.

Dr. Fanta Aw: So your network and what, what, and how those relationships forge, I think are important to do. And then the 4th thing is always be a learner. Be curious about life and know that learning is something that we do lifelong, right? So learn something new that you have not learned before. Pick up a good book, pick up a podcast, you know, um, do something around your learning.

Dr. Fanta Aw: And continue to be curious. Um, it’s one of the ways that we grow as human beings. So it helps you with a growth mindset. Those are a couple of the things that come to mind for me is really, um, embrace change, you know, be a learner, understand the role of advocacy and civic engagement, um, and leverage your relation and understand the importance of relationships.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Those are the advice that I would give to any and everyone in international education.

Kwan: This is a lifetime advice that will never die. applicable to all the challenges that we have in our life. You’re exactly right. We cannot succeed alone. No one can, you know, do this important work all by ourselves.

Kwan: We need the collaboration and don’t be afraid of change. So amazing advice. Thank you so much. And now we would love to hear your advice for the international student community.

Kwan: For international students who are dreaming of launching their careers in the US. We all know that is not easy.

Kwan: What advice would you offer based on your own experiences?

Dr. Fanta Aw: Thank you for that question. Um, and it’s a question that is near and dear to my heart. Um, because, like I said, having been a former international student and being in the field of international education, um, how we help international student thrive and find their space and place, um, after they complete their studies.

Dr. Fanta Aw: It’s really, really important. Um, and it’s something that I really feel passionate about. My advice to international students are the following. Believe in yourself. You know, the fact that you were willing and able to leave your home country, in many cases so far, leave everything that was familiar and that you knew, tells me you have tremendous resilience.

Dr. Fanta Aw: International students are very good at adapting because you have to adapt to be successful. You have to be able to adapt to a new culture, to a new educational setting. To a new educational style to just a different environment, all of that. Right. So believe in yourself in that, you know, that you’re resilient, you know, so that’s one thing because that’s going to serve you well, you know, there will be times when you’re going to be doubtful, but if the fact that you can fall back on believing yourself is important.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Second is, you know, we often say that, you know, our cultures are very relational. Many of us come from cultures that are very relational, know that the U. S. is not different. Um, so the ability to really build your network is going to be important. You know, think about faculty that you’ve forged relationships with, think about the advisor that you’ve built a relationship with, think about your colleagues and friends that you’ve gotten to know and so forth.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Let them know when you’re seeking jobs that you’re looking. Because somebody knows somebody who knows someone, right? I will say that network becomes important. So make sure that you speak into existence, the fact that you’re seeking employment, that you’re looking for things that are in specific fields, et cetera, make sure you’re at the right place, right spaces at the right time.

Dr. Fanta Aw: And that’s the networking part that I think is important as international students. So, make sure you take time to do that. Um, as international students, we have to be more informed about our options because of our visa situation. We need to know what we can do as F1 students. We need to know what is the pathway with H1B.

Dr. Fanta Aw: We need to know what are other pathways such as O visas and others. So, the ability to be again a learner. And in this instance, to learn about the immigration options for work is going to be really, really important to be able to do. Um, so that’s the other part. And then lastly, make sure you leverage all of the resources that are available on your campuses, the career centers, your faculty network, all of that is going to be important so that you can position yourself.

Dr. Fanta Aw: In ways I can help you with the job search that’s my advice to international students, particularly as they’re thinking about their aspirations of wanting to be in the U. S.

Dr. Fanta Aw: believe in yourself. Make sure that you really nurture those relationships that you have, because they’re going to matter a lot. Be a learner, get all the information that you need.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Um, to make sure that you have that and then make sure you leverage all the resources that are available to you

Kwan: such a great advice and we have all of the captions from our conversation today in the caption of the podcast. So, international students check all these four factors.

Kwan: to success from Dr Aw.

Kwan: It’s going to help you so much with your long term career goal. Thank you so much, Fanta, for all of these amazing advice and words of wisdom today. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Well, it’s been wonderful being on this show, Kwan. Um, again, like I said, you know, um, international students have so much to offer, you know, many speak multiple languages.

Dr. Fanta Aw: Um, students come here, get their degrees in lots of different fields, and then also the part that I think is important for them is there’ll be times when it’s hard, and we know that it’s hard, um, but do not be discouraged, right? Sometimes you’re going to have to be more patient, but don’t be discouraged, um, because it does happen.

Dr. Fanta Aw: If it can happen for me, if it can happen for others, then there’s definitely are opportunities, and it may just take a little bit longer It may take, you know, many more networks to do that, but I have complete faith that our students, international students, are very ready for that challenge.

Kwan: And you know, for, for all of us here, we want to let you know that success is not a straight line, so be resilient and know that you are already good.

Kwan: You’re good enough to be here, so stay resilient and we’re here to support you. Look for all the resources at NAFSA and is there anything else that you like international educators or students to look out for or use the resources you have right now with NAFSA this year?

Dr. Fanta Aw: Well, thank you for that question.

Dr. Fanta Aw: I think the key parts that’s also important. For international students, we have the NAFSA flagship magazine where we talk about all different things related to the field. I encourage students to avail themselves of that as a resource because I think it’s an important resource. So, that’s something that I would encourage folks and for those international students who are in the field of international education, definitely encourage you to attend the regional conferences so that you can really get introduced to the field that way or the national conference.

Dr. Fanta Aw: So that’s what those who are really wanting to go into the field. There is professional development opportunity to be able to do that. So those are some of the examples of things that come to mind as I think about the ways international students can leverage at NAFSA.

Kwan: Amazing. And we will have those links in the caption under this podcast episode.

Kwan: Thank you.

Kwan: Thank you again, Fanta and everyone. Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. You can also watch the video on YouTube and on Spotify as well. And if you enjoyed this podcast, follow our channel and share your positive thoughts with a review. Your support helps others find us.

Kwan: Thank you so much for being part of our community. Have a great day and I will see you next time. Think big and live your dream.

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