The tricky question of ethnicity and nationality on resumes

Australia_Entry_Stamp_HensleyIn my role as careers consultant at La Trobe university, I enjoy the diversity of students that I work with. It was a challenge after working at relatively  homogeneous RMIT Vietnam, but a refreshing one. I enjoy being amongst a wide range of nationalities, backgrounds, perspectives, goals, languages and cultures.

But one thing I’m struggling with is how I talk about ethnicity and nationality with my students, particularly when it comes to their resumes. I know that Australian employers can be reluctant to hire international students and that prejudicial hiring practices are a significant barrier for non-Anglo job seekers. I feel that I need to address it in my consultations, but I fear that in doing so I contribute to the marginalisation of these students.

I feel uncomfortable when asking the question “what is your visa status?” I dislike the idea that I am signalling to the student that I see them as a foreigner and expect others to as well. They may have a “foreign” name, a “foreign” accent, “foreign” schools or jobs on their resumes… yet they could be a citizen of Australia, which is more than I can say. Some of my students were born here, yet because of their name, religion, or accent, may be viewed as foreign by employers and thus placed at a disadvantage. I have also noticed that I tend to assume that students with Greek or Italian names are true blue Aussies, due to the way these nationalities have become part of the social fabric of Melbourne, whereas an Asian or Indian name will raise the question of nationality and foreignness in my mind.

More than once I have asked lazily “are you an international student?”, and felt sheepish when I’m told “I’m a citizen”. More than once I have had Australian born students ask me if they should use their actual name or an English nickname on their resume. Several times I have coached students on how to achieve “culture fit”, often a convenient proxy for discrimination.  Far too often I have been totally unable to suggest any useful advise to a highly employable student who has received zero interest from employers. In these cases, even my expressions of sympathy feel hollow and condescending.

My solution for some students is to address the hidden work rights question up front, by listing their citizenship or visa status at the very top of the resume, near the contact details. It is contrary to the recommendation of “no personal information” on Australian resumes, but I see it as a necessary compromise in the face of discrimination.

I’m not sure what the answer to my discomfort is. I do believe that it’s an important matter and that my advice can help students achieve their goals, but how can I address it without inadvertently perpetuating an othering experience for these students?

 

IEAA International Employability Symposium

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One of the great challenges I’ve faced in my new job as a career consultant in Melbourne is working with international students. While many of them have a lot to do to improve their employability skills, not to mention their resumes, they seem to be at a real disadvantage when it comes to finding and securing opportunities. At the Big Meet job fair, I was quite shocked to numerous employers had signs on their booths stating: “Australian Citizens and Permanent Residents Only”, despite the fact that international students have the legal right to work in Australia and a lot to offer employers. I struggled to think of what I could do to help my international students in the face of these barriers.

For this reason I joined a couple of hundred of fellow education professionals at the International Education Association of Australia’s International Employability Symposium, here in Melbourne. The goal of the symposium was to look at the barriers international students face when seeking employment in Australia, such as a lack of employability skills and experience; a shortage of opportunities; and general reluctance to employ international graduates.

At the heart of the symposium were drafts of three “good practice guides” – one for students, one for employers, and one for institutions – aimed at improving employability outcomes for international students. The attendees were asked for their feedback, much of which pointed out that booklets would be less effective than more dynamic digital or social media resources.

A highlight of the symposium was hearing from Rob Lawrence, CEO of Prospect Research and expert in international education market research, on the miss-alignment between what employers are looking for and what international students have to offer. Part of this is a lack of employability skills on the part of the students’, but it also involves a lack of awareness of the value of international students on the part of the employers. The findings offered some concrete areas where international students need to improve to be competitive: communication and problem solving, workplace experience, and fitting into the Australian workplace culture.

It was nice to be involved in this discussion and I found myself feeling motivated that I have something I can contribute to this mission. But I couldn’t help but feel that two important stakeholders were missing from the conversation: the employers and the top rungs of university leadership. The symposium participants were all very motivated and had immense expertise that they could bring to bear on the problem, if only they had the resources to do so.

Aside from the symposium proceedings, I also enjoyed my first experience of live-tweeting an event, which to my surprise and slight embarrassment saw my Twitter avatar broadcast on the projector for half the day. As a result of that I got to meet some people working on really interesting projects aligned with my interests, such as Meld Magazine for international students, Refraction Media, which publishes really nice careers guides for STEM fields, and Ready Grad, which produces online and blended career development resources.