Try Volunteering to Build Job Skills as an International Student

Volunteer work can help international students grow a professional network and get job experience.

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International students can use volunteer opportunities to build a professional portfolio and demonstrate creativity and problem-solving skills.
International students can use volunteer opportunities to build a professional portfolio and demonstrate creativity and problem-solving skills.

The opportunity to study as an international student comes with many advantages and only a few limitations. One of those drawbacks is the need to obtain a student visa, which restricts international students' options for off-campus employment.

Students are permitted to hold jobs on campus, such as in retail or customer service positions, to help cover expenses and supplement funding from scholarships and loans. But what if your future career is in another field?

Professional academic programs typically recommend internships as part of the student learning experience, as they provide work exposure in a student's chosen career path. Placements can be arranged by the university department, but often students are left to their own networking skills to secure these resume-boosting positions.

[Follow these four internship tips for international students.]

Knowing this, it is important to pursue activities that expose you to people and environments that can strengthen your future. There are a few steps I tried that may help you uncover opportunities to build up work experience – without a lot of work.

First, start close to home. Look within your department to see what kinds of connections are already there.

At Andrews University, the department of communication consists of faculty and staff who all participate in a variety of annual professional societies and conferences. When I first arrived on campus, I made it my job to learn about the professors within the department.

One professor boasted a decorated media background and another specialized in digital journalism. Their colleagues worked in other fields such as education, production and design. Finding a professor whose area of research interested me allowed me to attend several conferences and learn more about what was going on in that field.

Next, make some cold calls. With the confidence of a conference or two behind me, I started following up on some of the contacts I had made.

People I met willingly shared their information with me. I asked them what types of jobs they had available and the description of each. This allowed me to identify the skills I should develop during my internships.

[Get the most out of your internship experience.]

Third, choose a mentor who can provide you with a solid recommendation. If there is a position open in a company where you can practice your craft for free, that's fantastic. It is, however, rare.

I learned that future employers were interested in seeing my problem-solving and creativity skills. Those were the tools that helped me to find work experience in college. I talked with the director of the local public library and asked if I could participate in its summer programming.

My proposal included developing children's workshops, computer training and an adult writers group. These were new programs that I could prepare and implement in order to diversify my resume.

[Learn about the 10 National Universities that produce the most interns.]

Finally, get some evidence of your experience. If you take an unpaid position, something as simple as a letter of recommendation from your volunteer supervisor goes a long way toward establishing your professional credibility.

In my case, all of my planning and writing materials became part of my professional portfolio. Every poster I designed, every PowerPoint lesson I created, every children's craft I thought up is now proof that I am a competent and creative candidate for a future job.

My experience at the library allowed me to practice skills from my textbooks – and fulfill a fundamental part of my degree – while gaining work experience to aid in my future. The Michigan Campus Compact volunteer organization was made aware of my time spent at the library and awarded me the 2013 Heart and Soul Award. It was just one more positive side effect of me dedicating time and meeting people.

Be sure to look for potential work experience in departmental research teams, leadership positions in campus clubs, charity organizations and other established volunteer programs in your area. Working for free is still working for something. The contacts, credits and connections that make up the experience are invaluable to your future career.

Katelyn Ruiz, from Canada, is pursuing an interdisciplinary master's degree in communication and English from Andrews University.