Jehan Almahmoud: Challenges and Advantages of Networking as an International Student!

Jehan Almahmoud is a second-year MLC student interested in the intersection of social media discourse and Saudi Arabian women’s identity.

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So you think networking is scary? Try being an international student in a networking event. It’s daunting! Networking in a foreign language is not easy. You need to simultaneously overcome the language barrier while dealing with the customary networking jitters. Being an international student, I vividly remember my first networking event around a year and a half ago. It felt like a challenging ESL conversation standardized test. I needed to be elaborate, yet concise. I had to choose my words carefully; order them correctly; use a mixture of conversational and academic vocabulary (not to sound too formal or too casual); pronounce correctly; stress my Rs and Ls; spit my Ps out; all of this in order to be understood, blend in, and avoid sounding ‘foreign’.

Well, I am foreign!
I am foreign to you as you are foreign to me.
I am not a native speaker of English.
I am a native speaker of my first language.

Fast-forward several awkward networking events, I finally came to the realization that being foreign is not a bad thing. One of the biggest challenges in what I call ‘networking while foreign’ is that your qualifications and skills are defined by your non-national status. Your ‘foreignness’ becomes your identity. The first question I get asked in a networking setting is how did I learn to speak English so well. My fluency in English becomes the center of an interrogation session, where the expectation is that I am an international student so I should sound like one.

Were you born in the U.S.? You must’ve immigrated to the U.S. very young, right? Is one of your parents American? No. To all three. I was born in Saudi Arabia, both parents Saudis, never been to the U.S. (except a year and half ago to join the MLC).

Unfortunately, this is how my networking encounters used to unfold. I felt I had to constantly justify being articulate in a foreign language, which diverged the direction of the networking conversation to a dead-end question-answer session about my background. It’s no longer a two-way communication to connect with the other person. I don’t get to ask questions about the other person’s interests, work experience, or skills. I don’t talk about my research interest, my work experience, my skills… things that matter to me and my personal and professional progress. I end up positioned as the Saudi Arabian who, surprisingly, speaks English so well.

Semi-accusatory questions about my ethnic origins did not only take away time and energy from essential networking objectives. They also cast a patronizing attitude from the speaker that lead to downplaying any fundamental contribution I could add to the conversation. I became the “questioned,” the somewhat passive receiver of questions. I used to end up answering questions, being self-deprecating and trying to downplay my language skills.

I got fed up from missing out on valuable networking encounters because the conversation takes on a predictable, meaningless direction of one-way questioning. Eventually, I learned to embrace and make the most out of ‘networking while foreign’.

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(image via http://blog.sweetcareersconsulting.com/)

Last week I attended a coffee hour for Georgetown graduate students. That networking event was the perfect opportunity to test out my polished new networking strategies. First, I positioned myself as a native speaker of a language other than English from the start; a non-native English speaker with sufficient fluency to carry out a conversation. In other words, I made peace with the fact that English is not my native language, never has been, never will be. This was more of a mental attitude that I took and carried out through my self-introductions. Second, I learned to take initiative. I devised a communication strategy that switches the attention from me as a “foreigner” to the other person. I intentionally became genuinely curious about the other person. I started asking questions!

Instead of being the passive receiver of questioning drills, I became an active initiator. I took charge of the conversation and directed it to the path I wanted it go. I started asking questions about the other person’s personal and professional interests, and even questions about their origins and where they come from. All the good stuff I get asked all the time. This doesn’t mean I stopped answering questions about where I’m from or whether it’s true that Saudi Arabian women are not allowed to drive (which is true by the way). Those questions are still asked. I still answer them, maybe briefly, but mindfully. Communication is a two-way street; the two participants have to be involved in order to get the most out of the interaction. I got the most out my last networking event, knowing that being ‘foreign while networking’ is not a crime.

Your native language is a powerful tool you use to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Who else in the room speaks native Urdu other than you? Who in the room can converse in several Arabic dialects, standard and colloquial? Who can draw Chinese calligraphy and speak both Mandarin and Cantonese? Your native language is a valuable asset; being foreign is empowering; it’s one aspect of many other unique qualities that makes you who you are.