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Harnessing the power of storytelling for mature international graduate students

A narrative approach emphasizes the importance of personal stories and experiences in career development.


Mature international graduate students in Canada are often positioned as novices and experts. They bring advanced knowledge and skills yet navigate a system differently from their previous experiences. Tailoring narrative approaches to their career education can play a transformative role in addressing their specific challenges, including interpreting prior experiences, translating knowledge across contexts, leveraging disciplinary expertise, and navigating complex career pathways.

A narrative-based approach recognizes the significance of personal stories and life experiences in shaping one’s career journey. Based on constructivist theory, which highlights the active construction of understanding through experiences, this approach recognizes that career development is a continuous journey of “life design“. In today’s post-modern world, careers are no longer linear or normative, requiring individuals to continually craft and revise their paths. Storytelling (like a consistent and authentic elevator pitch, personal branding or network conversations) enables students to capture the wholeness of their knowledge, skills and experiences, for self-awareness and communication to employers.

Supporting personal growth

In my practice, international graduate students experience frustration, anger, and grief as they transition from being seen as “somebody” to feeling like “nobody” in a new environment. Their remarkable achievements and unique qualities often go unnoticed especially through normative labour market processes, and the emphasis on “Canadian experience” tends to overshadow their other valuable experiences. For instance, someone who was previously a marketing manager in Asia may find both their place-based knowledge and leadership style underappreciated in the same profession in Canada. Furthermore, they are exposed to deficit-saturated narratives of themselves that are exacerbated by societal stereotypes. All of these undermine one’s self-image and mental security.

At a personal growth level, a narrative approach empowers individuals to shape their personal narratives and incorporate identities that are disadvantaged in society. In clinical counselling, narrative approaches have gained popularity in cross-cultural contexts with underserved and marginalized populations such as students of colour and immigrants. This is particularly relevant in the Canadian “Edu-gration” (the intersection of higher education and immigration) landscape to support international students’ integration to Canada. These approaches empower individuals to view their career challenges from a strengths-based perspective rather than focusing on deficits or pathologies – promoting a positive sense of self. Developing counter-narratives allows these students to regain a stronger sense of self-efficacy. As international graduate students bring together the varied components comprising their identities, including “disruptions” in their stories, the career narrative communicates coherence, continuity, and stability conducive to biographical learning and personal transformation.

Improving career outcomes

The narrative approach also guides individuals toward fulfilling career outcomes. It facilitates the process of understanding career-related experiences as meaningful, engaging, and transformative. For international graduate students, articulating a personal narrative that aligns with the Canadian labour market is essential for enhancing employability. Employability is itself a contested concept representing forms of recognition that can be biased, oppressive, and thus be challenged (e.g., “cultural add” vs. “cultural fit” as a recruitment preference offers new lights for both employers and candidates). Narrative tools such as pictorial storytelling and career systems interviews offer practical ways for international graduate students to visualize their strengths and mobilize their resources in impactful ways. Narrative intervention gives agency back to the storyteller with increased confidence and capacity to re-story their career transition, demonstrating resilience and adaptability to potential employers.

Career education practitioners don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to narrative-building advising. For instance, developing resumes can serve as a tangible tool to cultivate stories of strengths and create a positive career identity that aligns with student aspirations. The emergence of AI resume analytics tools, such as Rezi, Jobalytics, Jobscan, and Skillroads, has revolutionized the way students enhance resume alignment with job descriptions, ultimately increasing their chances of passing through ATS (Applicant Tracking System) screening, which is automated to evaluate job applications based on predetermined criteria. With the technical aspects being handled, it allows advisors to focus on self-exploration, where students are supported to interpret their experiences from fresh perspectives and gain a deeper understanding of available resources to recompose employability.

While narrative approaches have their benefits, they also have their challenges. Sometimes, they can create incongruent expectations of the helping role between student and advisor, as some students may expect to hear from the traditional expert role. They also tend to be time-consuming and demanding of the practitioner’s capacity. Practitioners need to exercise judgment and flexibility in using narrative in combination with other advising tools, especially with limited resources for extensive individual advising. Additionally, it is important to note that international students may face other barriers to sharing personal stories. Hence, narrative-incorporated career education needs to be culturally responsive.

Narrative approaches in career education provide an alternative to traditional skill and interest assessments, emphasizing the importance of personal stories and experiences in career development. Harnessing the power of storytelling in career education holds immense potential for international graduate students. The benefits of narrative approaches, such as increased self-awareness, empowerment, and a sense of purpose, make it a valuable tool in the career education toolbox.

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].

Siyi Cheng is a cooperative education faculty member at Northeastern University, where she advises graduate engineering students. She also conducts doctoral research at the University of British Columbia in educational studies.
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