I had the pleasure of meeting Uyen when I was at the Vong Tay Nuoc My (VTNM) Career Conference in Chicago.
I was a mock interview coach, and Uyen was part of one of the VTNM6 committees. She impressed me with her authenticity, charisma, and intelligence. Uyen is a former international student who successfully secured a full-time job in the U.S. one year before graduating from Iowa State University. She now wants to give back to the international student community.
I was excited about the possibility to interview her. Her career search journey in the U.S. and the way she managed it was something we could all learn from. The culmination of her experiences really embodies what I teach international students: to build meaningful connections.
Kwan: All international students’ journeys begin before even getting to the U.S. How did yours being?
Uyen: Even before coming to the U.S., I asked myself: what is in store for me beyond graduation? If I graduate and then go back home to work, will what I have learned academically in the U.S. be applicable at all? So I set my goal: to learn as much as I can outside of class. Like many freshmen, this led me to join a lot of clubs my first semester. This quickly became overwhelming, and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin since I was still trying to cope with cultural differences and such. So I narrowed my focus to what I’m truly interested in.
I think for freshmen, especially those who are unsure about their major, it is good to try different things and diversify themselves and see what really sticks with them. Eventually, I started going to three clubs, instead of more, while making sure I was learning a lot from industry professionals and honing my soft and leadership skills. I found myself on the right track in picking finance as my major.
Kwan: You mention wanting to try out things outside of class. Aside from clubs, what other experiences did you have outside of class?
Uyen: I began attending career fairs my freshman year. I know this is unusually early, but I went because I thought, “why wait until junior or senior year”; by then, I would already need to know how to write a resume or how to ace an interview. So during my freshman year, I started attending career fairs. It was really helpful when I could speak with recruiters without pressure to look for jobs but getting to know them. I said something along the lines of: “as you can see, I am a freshman, and I know that your company is not particularly looking for freshmen right now, but I would love to learn more about your company.” After that, I periodically maintained our relationship via email.
Kwan: What do you mean by maintaining your relationship via email? How did you craft these emails?
Uyen: After the career fair, I sent them follow-up emails. They gave me career advice, suggesting that I join this club or take this class, and in the emails, I would send them updates, replying that I really enjoyed that one class and that I was now holding an executive position in that one club. Also, I would follow the news pertaining to their company and ask them questions based on that. I kept a very genuine conversation going—I was not thinking, “one day, I want you to offer me a job.” And these relationships continued into my sophomore. I attended the career fair again, and having kept in contact with them for a year, they recognized me immediately.
Looking back, the follow-up emails I sent after my first career fair were not professional at all. I said something along the lines of: “Hi, I’m Uyen, we talked at the career fair. I’m the short Asian girl with the ponytail”. But I think this was refreshing for them, and maybe that was why they remembered me. From day one, I had approached them maybe a little bit unprofessionally, but in a completely genuine manner.
Kwan: Let’s fast-forward a bit. How did you find your first internship?
Uyen: My first summer internship was actually not in the U.S., but back home in Vietnam. I did originally get a U.S.-based offer, but after hearing from some people who had held that intern position before, it sounded like I would not be learning much from that experience. So I decided to let that go, broadened my search. I had to resolve to use LinkedIn to connect with professionals in Vietnam since my family didn’t really have any connections back home. Eventually, I connected with the CFO of a Boston-based company, and it was really daunting, to connect with a company CFO as a sophomore, but it ended up working out really well for me, and he was my first boss and mentor. The company was also very well-known venture capital and private equity company in Asia. I learned a lot from that internship experience.
Kwan: Tell us a bit more about where you are now. How did you end up working at Collins Aerospace?
Uyen: This again happened by maintaining a key relationship. I was one of the founding members of the Global Business Club at my university, and we would try to find potential speakers to speak to our students. During my sophomore year, I reached out to an ISU alumnus working at Collins Aerospace and invited him to speak. After this, I emailed him to thank him for his time and asked if he could send me the presentation he used. From there, I really dove into learning more about the company, and this is how I maintained my relationship with him.
Fast forward to my junior year, when I was doing mock interviews, and Rockwell was one of the companies conducting these mock interviews. Even though I interviewed with a different representative, I asked many insightful questions from the knowledge that I already had. When the same representative came for a career fair afterward, he still remembered me. One presentation led to a mock interview, some actual interviews, and eventually an internship offer. I really enjoyed the internship and accepted a full-time offer at the end of the summer of my junior year. This secures a full-time position one year in advance of my graduation. And the rest is history.
Kwan: Your experiences are just like what we teach our students in our coaching program on the ICAway Talent Platform. We want our students to start building meaningful connections without job offers being the end goal. We want them to build genuine relationships in an organic way.
Do you have any final advice for all the international students out there who are in the same position you once were in?
Uyen: Knowing yourself is important. Even though I am now beyond job searching, I am still networking, and I think the best thing is to know yourself. During this era of information overload, students might be comparing themselves to other people, trying to imitate somebody else, and not being true to themselves. If you don’t understand yourself, it is hard to make your own brand or simply navigating through life.
Another piece of advice is to keep learning. In this dynamic, ever-changing world, the ability to learn, unlearn, and to re-learn is crucial. You do not need to be a fast learner; simply cultivating a growth mindset is sufficient. Last but not least, always have plan B (then C, then D). You never know whether you will get a full-time offer after an internship or not, even when you might have done your best, whether your visa situation will turn out smoothly or not after you graduate, and so on.
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About Coach Kwan
Kwan is an experienced human-capital consultant. Her past corporate experience includes global organizations like Deloitte, Accenture, and BMW. She moved to the U.S. in 2014, earned her Senior Professional HR certification from HRIC and joined one of the world’s most prestigious consulting firms as a Senior Consultant of Human Capital Consulting Practice. There, she managed multiple projects for Fortune 500 clients.
Today, Kwan is the CEO and Founder of ICAway /i-see-a-way/, an educational consulting firm based out of Chicago. Our mission is to empower international students and light their way to finding jobs in the U.S.