Students need to become their own brand ambassadors to help align their experiences with employers’ needs

Jolene Sangster and Karn Nichols

author headshotsThe seed for this vital conversation was planted back in 2018 when we observed an international student participate in an interview competition. Chidi brought over four years’ experience and was pursuing a graduate degree. On paper, this student met all requirements of the job. He had the direct work experience to be successful in the role. The second candidate in this competition was a domestic student who was pursuing an undergraduate co-op degree. This individual also benefitted from a strong professional network facilitated by her parents. There was no denying that the domestic student leveraged her privilege and portrayed a level of confidence throughout the interview. She was also able to use examples that related to the interviewer’s worldview.

Regardless of the number of hours Chidi had spent planning, preparing and practising for the interview, it was obvious he would never be able to successfully compete against this candidate. Although he answered all questions appropriately, including identifying examples to educate the employer on the alignment of his experiences abroad to the Canadian context, he was still unsuccessful.

Due to the structure and design of the interview, the employer missed the opportunity to lean in and uncover the important nuances of Chidi’s international experience. Conversely, Chidi was unable to dive into the deeper, richer elements of his work history and demonstrate how his worldview could offer unique breadth and depth of experience and knowledge that would positively impact the organization.

Chidi’s level of confidence and ability to navigate the nuances of the interview simply did not compare to the domestic student, who was able to leverage her domestic privilege and network to easily relate and communicate her experience to all aspects of the interview. It was not lack of confidence or preparation for the international student; it was simply the invisible force that was working against him. Perhaps it was the interviewer’s inability to relate to Chidi’s worldview or Chidi’s inability to relate the interviewer’s worldview. Cultural nuances were present as we watched the interview competition unfold.

young man sitting outside train station looking at phone
Navigating cultural differences

In a school that hosts over 3,300 students from 80 countries, this story plays out in our career services office daily. Saint Mary’s University (SMU) is known as one of the post-secondary institutions with the highest proportion of international students in Canada (Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, 2020). From preparing for interviews, to presenting their pitch during corporate tours or having coffee chats with industry leaders and employers, students default to the behavioural tools that are familiar to them.

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This impact is demonstrated in a number of ways: students from countries that traditionally practise rote learning and memorization in school often find it difficult to “be themselves” in an interview; cultures that are grounded in a high power distance, where “lower-ranking” subordinates defer to those in power, tend to minimize job titles or dismiss previous leadership experience to avoid perceived conflicts; acting “shy” as a form of politeness or coming across as aggressive when the student was simply trying to be direct in respect of the employer’s time, are other common points of tension.

To help international students reach their fullest potential, we have had to dig into the context of what it takes to successfully compete in the Canadian job market. We often hear employers defining the soft skills and core competencies their businesses need. How do we best assist our students in demonstrating that they are the right person for the job, despite cultural differences?

A framework to support students

Cross-cultural differences between the interviewer and interviewee can affect interview judgment and evaluation (Manroop, Boekhorst & Harrison, 2013). What is our role as career coaches in mitigating this impact? What role do we play with students, employers and within our career development profession? It is our view that we need to nurture a more holistic approach to our roles. This starts with naming the unconscious bias that exists within ourselves, as well as throughout the systems in which we work. As career coaches, we need to provide a framework to support students and newcomers who are seeking employment, so they are well equipped to present themselves as competent candidates regardless of past cultural influences.

We have developed a framework called You Inc. that offers students the ability to explore, create and own content, enabling them to become the best brand ambassador of themselves. We know that in order to be successful, it is important for businesses to be thoughtful about their strategy. What is their mission and vision? Who is their target audience? What is their brand? In the same way, we ask students to consider their strategy. This approach applies the elements of planning a business to students’ career development. It allows students to discover and define the sweet spot where passion and purpose intersect while being intentional in identifying and developing strategies to communicate this to their target audience.

This work provides them with the fodder to develop their own “mission statement” and become grounded into their power. It has been gratifying to watch the students identify who they are at their core and what attributes of their authentic selves they are able to offer to an employer. Students have the ability to lead from a place of authenticity rather than fitting into a cookie-cutter mold of the do’s and don’ts for successful interviewing or networking.

We further strengthen the students’ ability to deliver on this strategy by facilitating opportunities for them to meet with employers and industry leaders through events such as corporate tours, speaker series and world cafes. Through these platforms, we have been able to witness the energy and alignment that occurs when students connect more deeply with employers because they have agency. Students operate much more effectively as their own brand ambassadors.

Our engagement with the student begins with the completion of a Self Inventory followed by a series of evidence-based activities. This foundation for success is built upon a number of fundamental steps including completing an environmental scan, evaluating market competition as well as other factors such as industry, societal and customer trends. This preliminary research offers students the opportunity to work from a place of curiosity and a desire to ask provocative questions. Simply put, they have gathered the data to ensure that they are well armed to step out into this new world.

This ownership of You Inc. is a framework that has created a foundation for students and an opportunity for employers to navigate within a contextual system without influence of past cultural norms or differences. International students can succeed in the Canadian job market when they are given the right tools to help them effectively express their value to employers.

Jolene Sangster is an Employment Coach for Graduate Career Services with the Sobey School of Business and has over 10 years of experience in the career services industry. She specializes in supporting students in developing career search strategy plans, identifying appropriate skills for resume writing and creating opportunities to strengthen networks. 

Karn Nichols is the Manager of Graduate Career Services with the Sobey School of Business. She enjoys leveraging her 20 years as a human resource professional to work with both students and employers to create the conditions for strong labour force attachment within Nova Scotia and beyond.


Laxmikant Manroop, Janet A. Boekhorst & Jennifer A. Harrison (2013) The influence of cross-cultural differences on job interview selection decisions, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24:18, 3512-3533, DOI: 10.1080/09585192.2013.777675

Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, 2020