International students are often unable to go home during the shorter breaks during the semester because of the cost and time involved in overseas travel. Some international students are lucky enough to be able to travel home for the upcoming winter break, while others must wait until the summer to see their friends and family back home.
International graduate students engaged in research degrees often have greater flexibility to choose when they will go home in a way that minimizes the time lost at work. Although undergraduate international students do not have this type of flexibility, those next headed home after the spring semester can use the upcoming winter break to plan ahead.
Many international students write off school breaks as leisure time because they are returning to their home countries. But it is possible to gain professional experience while also getting to spend time with friends and family.
American students often use the summer to gain real-world job experience by conducting research in a lab, participating in a corporate internship or getting a temporary job. Any of these can give them an edge in the pursuit of career goals after their degree is finished.
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Similarly, international students need not write off their entire summer break, though it may be tempting to do so after two busy semesters away from family. Both undergraduate and professional students can arrange an internship at home during the vacation.
Try to arrange internships in companies or universities in your home country and get job experience that will boost your resume. Depending on how common it is for college students to have such jobs or internships in your home country, you may need to arrange for a position ahead of time.
An undergraduate student from India in my lab chose to spend two months of her first summer college break learning to do clinical diagnostic work at a lab in a big hospital. When she and her friends were taking a very difficult pathogenic microbiology lab her senior year, the work was a breeze for her because of that summer job three years earlier. The hospital also extended her a job offer for when she finished college.
Graduate students, however, may not necessarily benefit from going home during official school breaks. Many graduate programs choose to fund their students through research assistantships rather than teaching assistantships. This means that once their required course work is done, students' work schedules do not necessarily depend on the academic calendar – they don't have any classes to take, and are engaged in research or writing up their final projects.
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School breaks, including the weeklong spring break, is often when professors have the most time to devote to their graduate students. Visiting home during an official break could mean not being able to make the most of your adviser's attention.
School breaks are often the most productive months for research, for both professors and for grad students. Your fellow graduate students will also be around more during school breaks and have more time for academic discussions.
I have learned to plan my trips home so that I am away during my research adviser's busiest times of the year, which are usually around midterm exams and the time leading up to finals. During these times, my adviser is busy teaching undergrad courses and grading.
An added advantage is that I get cheaper tickets to India since I am not flying during the peak summer or winter seasons. I make it to Indian festivals that fall in October and November and get to be with my family to celebrate them.
[Learn how to save money as an international student.]
Visiting family and friends back home is one of the happiest times of the year for most international students. This happiness doesn't have to come at the cost of sacrificing career-advancing opportunities. International students can make the most of breaks to do both.
Swati B. Carr, from India, is currently pursuing her doctorate in synthetic biology at Boston University and advises prospective international students. She first came to the U.S. as an international student for her master's in microbial genetics from the University of Rhode Island.