The misadventures of international students seeking work

8 Mins read

University students open up about their struggles to secure a part-time job during their course. 

On a random Tuesday evening in May, I am lounging in the common room of UAL’s Archwood House with my classmates.

While we are surrounded by a handful of students who are sorting their groceries with another set who are enjoying their bubble tea, the mood at our table grows intense.

The reason? It is our collective misfortune at securing a part-time job. 

Arriving in London last October, Ada Kohli, Ruta Bakshi and I have struggled to secure a part-time job that would be able to sustain us in the city.

Fortunately, I had been able to land a job as a barista just weeks before this conversation but my experience with job hunting has been stressful enough for it to still feel unreal.

“I got rejected for the role that required me to arrange books on a library shelf. What groundbreaking skill set do you need for that?” exclaims Ruta, her voice laced with annoyance. 

But she wasn’t the only one to have such experiences- Arianna Distefano, a 22-year-old MA Journalism student who has been living in the city for over four years was declined for the role of an ice-cream vendor: “I am Italian, I know ice cream and I can serve it too”. I, myself faced rejection by a local Indian supermarket for the job of a shop assistant.

The initial turn-downs felt like a learning process, with many students sharing the frustration around having to find a student job and the process behind it. But further down the process, this frustration developed into uncertainty, insecurity and stress regarding our future in the city. 

However according to a report by The Pie News, two-thirds of international students in London work paid jobs throughout their studies, so why do some students still struggle to secure a minimum-wage job? 

Image via Pexels by Ron Lach
Students face many barriers to finding a part-time job in London [Pexels: Ron Lach]

Ada, who is currently studying in MA Audio/Video Journalism points out the lack of experience in a part-time work setting since some cultures do not practice it.

Countries like the UK and USA encourage teens to work and develop a sense of financial responsibility and independence, while in South Asian countries, students start looking for employment in their field during their undergraduate careers. They are usually internships that prepare them for the corporate world. 

For example, a colleague in the café I now work at has had three years of experience of being a barista from the age of 19, whereas at the age of 22, this is my first time working in the food and hospitality sector. This experience of mine adds to the gap of the lengthy and uncertain application process as well as the lack of response from employers. 

The initial months of any international student go into settling down in the city, making new friends, understanding the course work, learning the culture and in many ways making a home, away from home.

Then you naturally want to understand the work culture and ethics, so you mould yourself into it. This includes making and remaking your CV almost every time you apply for a job and writing hundreds of cover letters. It took me around two hours to write and edit original cover letters and apply for up to 10 jobs in a day. 

What bothers the students is that many employers barely respond to the application, regardless of your application platform. Ruta continues on this topic saying, “I have accounts on LinkedIn, Indeed, Job Today, Total Jobs and more that I don’t even remember, and I must’ve applied to almost 100 jobs through all these platforms.” 

This has been the case for every student I know but apart from the handful of rejections, the employers never get back to the applicants.

In Ada’s case: “Out of the 60 jobs I have applied to, I was called for only two interviews, I received around 15 to 20 rejection emails, but I never heard back from the rest.” An article by a recruitment company, Charity Job says that 75% of the applicants never hear back from the employers to where they have applied. 

Students try to overcome this by walking in cafés, retail spaces and everything in between with CV copies in hopes of getting an interview for a job or getting a follow-up on their application. The outcome however is not usually fruitful.

I had strolled through Central London for over two hours back in April, trying to get follow-ups on my applications or check for any vacancy but I returned empty-handed and exhausted. Most of the places I had applied to dismissed me saying that it came under the HR department, and they couldn’t help me with it. 

These part-time jobs serve one purpose above all: providing the ability to afford the London lifestyle. This is why, students usually don’t look for jobs that align with their pathway because it can take away their focus from the course work itself.

Renoshka Gomendes, who graduated from Greenwich University with an MA in marketing in 2023 also points out that since corporate companies don’t work on weekends, and lectures and assignments take most of your week, there are rarely flexible shifts available in the corporate sector for students. 

This makes one thing clear: rejections are not something that affects the mental health of applicants, it’s the entire financial dependence on family and pressure to pay off the student loan that gets to them. The average tuition fee for international students is estimated to be around £22,000 plus living expenses. 

The stress of paying the loan back mixed with depending on one’s parents entirely to support them financially can often make the students feel dejected.

Ruta admits that this scenario has taken a toll on her mental health and stopped her from going out altogether and she is surviving London rather than living it.

“Stepping out in London costs you 20 quid straight. And I can possibly do that and ask my parents to send me money, but it is physically difficult. For two years I had a job and savings to afford the lifestyle I wanted and now it feels like I am putting a burden on them.” 

Unfortunately, this issue has now started affecting her academic studies: “I don’t like the recent submissions I have done because the financial crisis is eating away at me.” 

Charlie Henry, a BACP-accredited therapist with nine years of experience under her belt, thoughtfully explains this via Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is a motivational theory in psychology that depicts human needs in a five-tier hierarchy pyramid.

“The base level highlights the basic human needs like food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep and breathing. One does not move on to the next tier unless they have achieved this. A job essentially helps you achieve the same, so when you struggle to secure one, it frightens you because you know want the work, you want the money, and you are looking for work but what can you do?”

Charlie further points out how work also gives you a purpose. “When you are sitting in your room with nothing to do and nowhere to go, it can trigger a lot of existential questions like Who am I? What am I doing? Am I in the wrong place?”

“Financial insecurity is a real red flag and when people feel financially insecure it can quickly lead to emotional insecurity, mental illness and distress.”

Charlie Henry

This relates to Ada as the crisis has attacked her self-esteem and left her with a lot of questions and uncertainties: “As a student, I am required to attend two classes per week, so I am cooped up in my room for the rest of the week. It often gets overwhelming to be left to your own devices for so long. Having a job would enable me to branch out, meet new people and engage in interesting conversations.”

I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Modern Family and the first phase of Marvel Universe in six weeks when I was unemployed and wanted to get away from that gnawing feeling of failure. I was in a spiral and I isolated myself well enough to disguise it from everyone. 

Charlie highlights that change in habit and patterns can be a call for help. For example, binge-eating, binge-watching, excessive online shopping, going out regularly, and not going anywhere at all.

“On a psychological level when you are stressed and anxious your whole body is in a prolonged sense of dysregulated nerves. That makes you feel like you’re on edge. Financial insecurity is a real red flag and when people feel financially insecure it can quickly lead to emotional insecurity, mental illness and distress.”

As already seen, this can lead to self-isolation from the prolonged feeling of disappointment. In situations like these, Charlie strongly suggests practicing mindfulness: “Mindfulness is about taking yourself out from your world and putting yourself in the wider world around you,” she says.

“The most practical and best advice is to do one thing in a day like going to a library, taking a walk in a park, meeting up with friends and classmates for an evening of games. When you boil down to it, it’s all about connecting yourself to the world around you.”

No solution written here is guaranteed to solve your problem, but it will most definitely make the issue a little bearable. Starting with your applications first, Charlie refers to rejections not as a flaw in yourself or a sign of discouragement; but as the process that helps you to develop resilience.

Once you let that sink in, it would be a lot easier to look at the jobs and rejections with an objective gaze and not let them affect you mentally. 

Every university has an employability department, reach out to them if you haven’t already. They might help you with certain job opportunities and even if those aren’t available, you can seek their guidance to improve your CVs and cover letters to the UK standard. You can also book one-on-one sessions to improve your interview and other corporate skills. 

Renoshka gratefully mentions how the employability team at Greenwich University helped her secure an internship during her course: “Making connections can sometimes feel tedious but they help you a lot in the long run. Even though I did not get my current job through them, I got personalised emails from them, and job adverts just by connecting with them on LinkedIn.”

I cannot emphasise this enough but there is no shortcut to networking. I was introduced to my job by my classmate who has been working there for over three months. She knew I was desperate, and when they had an opening, she suggested that I should apply. I did just that! And within a week I was employed and learning coffee art. 

This brings me to my last point, keep applying through online job portals but sweep your local shops for job opportunities too. Big brands have a complex hiring process, but local businesses are usually managed by the owners themselves, so it saves you from the lengthy recruitment process. You can drop in, have a chat and let them know that you would be available if any future opportunities arise. This increases your chances of callbacks and eventually hiring.

Ada admits that she is pessimist about future job prospects. With the UK declaring recession, the already competitive market is now cutthroat, the cost-of-living crisis is all-time high, and the government sees international students as cows to milk money from.

Vivienne Stern, Chief Executive of UK Universities told BBC “Universities need international students to fund domestic education.”

According to a report released in 2023, international students bring £41.9 billion in economic benefits to the UK. However, another report released by Graduate Coach last year states that international graduates struggle to land a graduate-level job in the UK, with only a 7% success rate out of all graduates. When you read these stats together, it feels unfair.

Universities should start organizing in-person workshops with students to prepare them for employment, not only in their specific career pathways but also in part-time sectors to help them develop financial stability.

These workshops can be arranged department-wise and included in the scheduled timetable so that the students get more personalised attention.

As it starts to get dark outside, our conversation comes to an end where Ruta and Ada state that if they are unable to secure a job by the completion of their course in December this year, then, unwilling to exhaust any additional resources, they would return to their home in India.

Renoshka’s contract ends sometime in the third quarter of 2024, if the employer decides to not renew the contract or not provide sponsorship, then she’ll have to switch jobs or eventually relocate if it doesn’t work out.

I am undecided about the future but one thing I am certain about after working on this piece is that I need to be more mindful about my mental well-being and you should be too. 


Featured image by Isha Sankala

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