Soft Skills Students Need To Maximise Their U.S. Journey

Soft Skills Students Need To Maximise Their U.S. Journey

Navigating U.S. education requires more than admission; it demands proactive time and financial management, initiative in seeking opportunities, adept communication skills, professionalism, and strong interpersonal connections.

Dr Deborah RosarioUpdated: Monday, June 17, 2024, 05:34 PM IST
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It often feels like all students must do is reach the summit of a rigorous application journey—achieving admission—and once admitted, they are securely on the path to academic and professional success.

It’s not that simple! 

Although U.S. universities provide expertise, opportunities, and support, leveraging these often depends on the students. Factors such as living independently, first for many Indian students, and cultural differences can present challenges. That is why students need to cultivate an array of attitudes and soft skills that make all the difference between struggling and thriving while studying in the U.S.

Time and financial management

One of the greatest challenges for students is being vigilant about managing their time and finances.  Students will have individualised and variable calendars for their academic classes and deadlines. They will have to juggle other activities such as internships, student clubs, time with friends and household chores. It is important for students to make a habit of practices such as being organised, acting promptly rather than procrastinating, and budgeting both time and money.

Amogh Desai, a master’s student at Carnegie Mellon University, advises students about the need to keep their educational goals in sight while making these decisions. He says, “Don't be a part of the rat race, but at the same time focus on your reason for being in the United States—professional, academic growth.”

Initiative

It is helpful to recognise that American culture is one that rewards initiative and persistence.  Sushmita Emani, a biology major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, describes how, despite hearing that research opportunities are not typically assigned to freshmen, she persisted in scouting for a research position and was selected as a research assistant in a reputable laboratory on campus.  Reflecting on her experience, she says, “It is important to be tenacious and seize any opportunity you see!”

Appropriate communication

Another matter that can significantly enhance the U.S. educational experience is adapting to American communication styles.  

Roopa Rawjee, Executive Director of the Office of International Engagement at Illinois State University, who has over 25 years of experience in international education in the United States and India, gives an example.  

“In India,” she says, “many people might start emails or conversations with a lot of general information before coming to the point.”  In American culture, on the other hand, “we begin with the reason for the communication and then provide supporting information.  Students who adapt quickly to this practice are likely to receive clearer and faster responses.”  It is helpful to understand the expectations for both oral and written communication.

Professionalism

Rawjee also specifies other qualities of professionalism in the American context.  One such attitude that is valued in the U.S. is “respect for time,” says Rawjee.  She suggests practices such as, “arriving a bit earlier, requesting an appointment rather than simply dropping in, sending an email with background information, and preparing talking points.”  She also says that if students “take ownership for mistakes, and are receptive to alternate solutions, [they] are more likely to earn respect.”

Interpersonal skills

A skill of vital importance for education and beyond is learning to connect with people.  Knowing how to strike up a conversation with someone you do not know or introduce yourself with an elevator pitch can help students get more from their educational journey.  Desai says that the practice of networking “might help you open doors that you didn't know existed.  Knowing the right people and being able to communicate your value is crucial.” Emani concurs, “The culture here places importance on going out of your comfort zone and harvesting essential connections.”

Students should think of these practices as skills rather than personality attributes, and as something that does not have to be an in-born trait but can be learned. American universities may also provide resources to acquire some of these skills.

Relating across cultures

Relatedly, it is important for Indian students to be willing to extend themselves beyond friendships with other Indian students.  Desai says that this “might be intimidating at first but this is the best opportunity to immerse yourself in new cultures and learn from/about them.” 

Rawjee also recommends that students maintain an open mindset and willingness to receive and explore as they encounter different attitudes and behaviours within American culture and international connections.  

She says, “Always check your assumptions: As we grow and learn, it is important to ask many questions and avoid generalisations, stereotypes, etc.”

Asking for help

A final point to note is that it is entirely acceptable to ask for help on a U.S. campus, and this is something students should be open to doing.  

Manmohan Thorat, an alumnus from Oklahoma State University, says, “Coming from India I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to asking for help.  Not only is it encouraged but it is expected of you to ask for help when you need it.”  

He adds, “American universities have many resources available to their students ranging from career services to medical and counselling centres, but you are expected to reach out and avail of those services.  So, if you're ever looking for help on an American campus, all you need to do is ask.”

As students approach studying in the U.S., it is wise to consider the skills and attitudes that can make the U.S. educational experience more fruitful.  At the heart of many of these lies the skill of self-awareness through which students learn to grow in their strengths, manage their weakness, fill gaps in expertise, or level up required skills, and more broadly, acquire the ability to take responsibility for their own growth. These attitudes and skills can then lay the foundation for success and fulfilment in education and beyond.

Please visit the EducationUSA website (https://educationusa.state.gov), and for individual questions or direct counselling with an EducationUSA adviser, please write to USEducationQueries@state.gov

The author is an EducationUSA adviser at USIEF Mumbai.

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