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Adapting career services to optimize the international student experience

Career centres are well-equipped to support international students in developing a sense of identity and purpose.


Before the pandemic, the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action (CCA) embarked on a multi-year, explorative journey to support the institution’s internationalization strategy. Our goal was to inspire international students to engage with us early and often. What follows is an overview of our journey, highlighting choices made and insights acquired along the way – aiming to inspire you to reflect on possibilities for your own service landscape.

Service data, campus consultations

Going into this process, we knew that approximately 33 per cent of the overall student population engaged with us each year and international students appeared to be no different. However, a closer inspection of our data revealed unsettling truths, such as that international students were:

  • half as likely as domestic students to access our individualized career services, and
  • the only identifiable group hitting our (then longstanding) appointment caps.

These trends caught our attention and helped us identify next steps.

Consulting with student groups, staff, faculty, and colleagues at other institutions came next. We delved into international students’ perceptions, challenges and needs; specifically how and when these emerge within work integrated learning (WIL) contexts. What we found was that, while appointment caps were put in place to assure service access for all, they were counterproductive – prompting first- and second-year students to avoid engaging with us in order to maximize access later in their studies. Meanwhile, international students reported needing early engagement. Once the impact of our policy became clear, we swiftly removed the caps. It was a memorable example of how the intention behind a policy can misalign with outcomes – and a humbling moment.

Consultation exposed other gaps and opportunities, too. We found that important, nuanced conversations were occurring between staff and students that were not reflected in our programming or resources; moreover, our supports could be challenging to navigate with confidence. We made several changes as a result, including:

  • Designing “step zero” co-op preparation interventions, such as résumé tutorials tailored to international students, with peers at the ready for one-on-one connection; more intercultural awareness-building workshops; and embedded co-op/career curriculum for integration into U of Waterloo’s academic bridging programs
  • Expanding drop-in career services from three hours to seven hours per day during one high-traffic month each term, and co-locating these with writing centre services
  • Incorporating career education messaging into the university’s international peer community communications vehicles

Outcomes and reflections on change

The most prominent outcome of this multi-layered initiative was that within a two-year span, we saw the average international student go from being half as likely as a domestic student to use our services, to consuming just over 1.5 times the resources compared to domestic students as a percentage of population. Moreover, 94.6 per cent of these students reported being likely to recommend our services to their peers. This shift is a point of pride and seemingly rooted in greater awareness and our more customized approach to inviting engagement. Yet arguably the bigger win is that we developed our understanding of how to effect meaningful change in the student service landscape.

Our first area of learning was that when pursuing continuous improvement, it is critically important to enable stakeholder perspectives and data to shape one’s actions. This sounds simple, and yet it isn’t necessarily a comfortable process across all postsecondary environments. We benefited a lot from setting targets and then intentionally refraining from moving into solutions. This process is part of what enabled us to remain attentive and adaptable. It also kept our stakeholders at the centre and gave us opportunity to build a system organically around them.

Second, we saw that the value of robust service data cannot be overstated. There is little one can do to make up for not having qualitative and quantitative evidence of what is or is not happening. The next steps forward in this realm will be to better align our survey questions with the higher-order well-being outcomes of career development work and to gain more practice incorporating aggregated social location data into our analyses.

A third area of learning was that with programming and communications, integration is key. Our most sustained impacts arose through co-creating programming with campus partners and embedding career education messaging into their existing curricula and communications vehicles.

Ultimately, pursuing internationalization within a career centre context requires us to appreciate and design services and programming that resonate with individuals across intersections of identities, cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. Successful implementation may require intentional collaboration with campus partners toward finding common goals and embodying shared values on both a systems-level and day-to-day basis.

Since the onset of the pandemic, new barriers to employment have emerged for a great many international students; now is thus the time to redouble our efforts. Career centres are well-equipped to support international students in developing a sense of identity and purpose that will help them navigate the uncertain world of work with resilience. Our work is far from done.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Jennifer Woodside is the director of the centre for career action (CCA) within co-operative and experiential education (CEE) at the University of Waterloo. Dinuka Gunaratne is the director of the centre for graduate professional development within the school of graduate studies at the University of Toronto. Lauren Broderick is the manager of academic programs for work-integrated learning programs within CEE at the University of Waterloo.
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