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How to get the most out of studying abroad

Alan Kerzner, CEO of the Institute for Global Student Success, says mentorship can help international students be more productive in their new study and work culture
BY Uma Asher |   16-08-2016

In many countries, students learn to be what Alan Kerzner calls ‘studyholics’ – they believe they’ll achieve more if they spend more time cramming. Kerzner, a Wharton School alumnus with over 35 years’ experience handling brands such as Olay skincare and Johnson’s baby products, now helps international students to succeed in and beyond the classroom. He believes mentorship is crucial to student success, and that is why he started the Institute for Global Student Success (IGSS).
 

Understand the field you’re getting into
Kerzner shares a story from his high school days in the 1970s. He wanted to be a pharmacist, and volunteered at a local pharmacy. One of the most important things he learned was how the business had changed. He says, “The pharmacist, an elder gentleman, told me, ‘In the old days, we made medicines: we’d take different powders, compound things… Now, all we are is pill counters. We count out how many each patient gets, we fill their bottle, and that’s it.’” The pharmacist told young Kerzner, “You, Alan, you’re not going to be challenged by this.”

Kerzner tells this story to underscore the importance of getting experience in what you think you might be interested in. He adds: “Get some experience in areas you might not be interested in but which hold a bit of fascination for you.  You may learn a lot about how you want to spend your life.”

So what does this imply for an international student getting an expensive education in an American university – does it mean you shouldn’t be too narrowly focused?
 

Understand the culture you’re studying in
Kerzner says: “I think the people who do best in college probably tend to do best in their career. But what’s different, and important, for an international student coming to the US is to get integrated and active fast.”

So it’s not just about your Grade Point Average, but also about the experience of learning to be in another culture. “You can get a 4.0 or 3.9,” says Kerzner. “But if you’re from India and just hang out with other Indian students, speaking Hindi, or if you’re Taiwanese or Chinese and hang out with other Taiwanese or Chinese, speaking Mandarin, you really don’t take advantage of… the opportunity and grow.”

He says those who are most successful are those who “go through the discomfort of seeking out and creating friendships with people from other countries, people who get involved in university clubs or activities”. In other words, not studyholics.

He says: “When colleges evaluate you, they’re not looking for students who spend their life between the book stacks in the libraries. They want people who create change, who create energy and enthusiasm, and enhance the lives of the students around them.”

Based on his work with students from various countries, Kerzner notes that education systems in some countries emphasize memorization. “That’s a giant difference from universities in the US, Australia, western Europe, where… the number one thing is critical analytical thinking, and applying concepts in different ways, tearing apart concepts, refiguring concepts,” he says. “You can’t memorize those types of questions, you don’t even know what they’re going to be.”

Based on interactions with Chinese students, Kerzner makes an observation that Indian students will find somewhat familiar: “If you’re going to go to a Chinese university, your major is basically dictated to you based on your score on the college entrance exam. There is so much stress around that exam in China, it’s amazing… if you want to be a doctor and you get a certain score on your college entrance exam, even if you’re allowed into a university, you will not be allowed to study math or science.”

Getting into a top university may be extremely difficult in India and China. “But once students get in, they may not work that hard,” Kerzner says of the Chinese system. “I’ve been told often students do not go to a third or half of their classes, but because the exams are traditionally memorization exams, you can cram a week before and do it right.”

However, he says, if you choose to study in the US, you’re going to be working extremely hard. It’s a big adjustment process for international students, he adds.
 

How mentorship works
Students can sign up any time – in their first year or later. Those who come to IGSS seeking mentoring typically want to stay in the US for a couple of years, and are focused on having a successful career, says Kerzner.

At IGSS, mentoring is done in nine-month blocks, and could continue for two to four years. “Depending on what you want to do, you’ll be assigned a mentor,” says Kerzner. One of the goals is to help students determine what they would be most comfortable and successful doing. He notes that in some cultures, parental influence one one’s career choice is substantial. “We deal with a lot of students who are accounting majors because that’s what mom or dad said… Now, I’d never say, ‘Don’t do what your parents said’ – having two kids of my own, I’ve had that experience! But we encourage you to gain experience or take courses in the field that your parents want you to pursue, and also take one or two courses in the field where you think you would be happiest.”

Mentors help students choose courses, switch majors if needed, and strike a balance between course work and other activities. “One of the things I do is try to stop students from over-extending themselves in the classroom,” says Kerzner.

Mentors do not help with homework. But if a student is struggling with a professor, a mentor can help build a healthy relationship. “I had a brilliant law student who was having this problem,” says Kerzner. “We help strategize different ways of trying to approach a professor and establish some rapport.”

The main focus is on the keys to success. The number one concern? “To differentiate yourself from others who are as smart as you, as nice as you, and as experienced as you,” says Kerzner. “You’ve got to convince the other party that you’re going to do a better job.” He notes that Asian students in particular often struggle with this if their culture emphasizes humility. Such students may be reluctant to emphasize their achievements for fear of sounding like they’re bragging. But, he adds, “No one’s going to pull the achievements out of you, so you have to be able to communicate them truthfully, comfortably, and persuasively.”

Mentors spend 60-90 minutes a month videoconferencing with students. “We work through positioning, networking… which is how 80% of jobs and internships are found,” says Kerzner. Networking in the US can be very different from other countries, he says. In the US, you may be reaching out to a complete stranger who is in a much more powerful position than you. By contrast, in some countries, networks are defined by family connections and social class.

Different cultures have different behavioral expectations, says Kerzner. Handshakes, eye contact, how you address someone, can all make a good impression – or a bad one. For example, he cites a study that indicated that in a professional conversation, Americans typically maintained eye contact for around 85% of the time, while Chinese people did so only about 28% of the time.

“We had someone who was a first-generation, first-year college student, who came from a very tough background where many people don’t have opportunities, and he needed to approach the vice-president of IBM.” In such cases, mentoring can be invaluable, he says. “It’s a lot better if in your first couple of days here, someone teaches you [about cultural expectations], rather than you go for three or six months until you realize it.”

Mentors help students get comfortable expressing what’s unique about them, and writing professional emails and resumes. This is why they also spend hours on mock interviews. “We’ve had students who were very shy, or maybe their English wasn’t great,” says Kerzner.

He jokes that he tries to the most obnoxious interviewer you could ever meet. “If you could handle that, the real interview is going to be a lot easier,” he says.

If the IGSS faculty have confidence in a student, they will even make personal introductions to industry contacts, though of course they don’t guarantee jobs. Mentors also help students and recent graduates plan career moves. “There’s been a couple of studies done of successful executives, and they’ve found mentoring to be one of the two biggest predictors of success,” says Kerzner.
 

Who gets mentored?
The majority of international students in the US come from China and India. But at IGSS, Kerzner says, there is roughly equal number of students from China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and India. Other students come from Greece, Slovakia, Turkey, and elsewhere. In terms of subjects, the two biggest areas are business and the sciences, says Kerzner. He adds, “We also get a disproportionate amount in education, because the way the US visa regulations are, once you get a degree, education seems to have less career options than most majors.” Students who seek mentoring at IGSS study all over the US.

So the beauty of this program is that we can work with you anywhere,” says Kerzner. “If you happen to be studying in the Philadelphia-New York corridor, we have some face-to-faces also. But it works just as nicely remotely.”

To join an IGSS program, you must meet minimum English-language requirements. “We often do video interviews of students just to be sure,” says Kerzner. A crucial requirement is a willingness to learn and to work hard, because the session is tough. “We don’t ask for GPAs or SATs or GREs, because that’s not as important to us as a good attitude,” says Kerzner.
 

Six-day intensive programs
IGSS also offers intensive programs, typically every August before the start of the academic year. Kerzner says they cost about $750 a day per student, for classroom space, accommodation, and three meals. He adds, “I’d really just go for a cheaper place, but students want to be in midtown Manhattan, which is the most expensive place in the country to do anything!”

Besides Kerzner, the faculty include Laura Sicola from the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “She is the leading executive presence coach in the country right now,” says Kerzner. Another faculty member is Barbara Schroeder, a communications expert from Princeton University. Kerzner adds: “We also bring in 15 vice-presidents and above, for students to talk to, to network with, and to have dinner with. And truthfully, those executives are people I wouldn’t meet, if it weren’t for this program.”

The first couple of days of the intensive program focus on culture adjustment. The rest is more focused on professional skills, how to position yourself uniquely, and how to network effectively. This includes creating effective resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and writing cover letters and professional emails, and interacting with panels of executives.

Kerzner readily concedes that not all students need mentoring. He says, “If you’re a junior or senior, and you’ve known from the day you were born you wanted to be an investment banker or a teacher, you obviously don’t need that sort of stuff.”
 

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