International Student – Interview

Hello everyone! For today’s post I decided to interview my friend and classmate, Sara Alkayali Alalam. Sara was an international student who grew up in Saudi Arabia and now works in technology consulting. I hope her perspective provides information as well as inspiration to any of you that are either looking to pursue your Master’s degree in the US or are looking for job opportunities as an international student!

1. When did you move to the US and from where?

I moved to the United States in August 2014 after completing a Bachelors in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

2. Why did you pick UT and your specific Master’s degree?

I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering, specifically Construction Engineering and Project Management, in the University of Texas at Austin (UT) primarily because I believed that graduating from a top school would open up opportunities for me and will be essential for my future plans, and I was right. When I was in the program, I applied for the Impact KAEC Challenge in Saudi Arabia, and had the opportunity to visit KAEC (the King Abdullah Economic City) and present at CityQuest’14 (where Dirk Ahlborn, Hyperloop Technologies CEO, presented as well!). After graduating from UT, I started working for a great company (more on that later). The UT Civil Engineering Master’s program also allowed a level of flexibility in course choices, so I was able to tailor my classes to fit my interests. For example, I was able to take a few operations research classes as well.

3. What challenges did you face while settling into the American lifestyle when you first moved here?

Everything closes so early here! In the Middle East, it is perfectly fine to start dinner at 10pm. However, to my surprise, the first week I came to the United States, I found out most restaurants close around 10pm. I had to sleep on empty stomach several times. With time, I adjusted my eating schedule (I now have dinner at 7pm), and I found out what restaurants are open late. Time in general was a difficulty, there is a 7 to 9 hour difference between Austin, Texas and where my family and friends live in the Middle East, which was hard to navigate at first. After a few weeks, I figured out the best times to call home (early in the morning or late at night).

4. What made you want to live in the US after graduation?

The United States offers many opportunities, professionally and academically, for people who work hard, and that is the type of culture I wanted to grow my career in. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, it is still difficult (though not impossible) for women to pursue high-powered careers.

5. Where do you work and do you enjoy it? Does it relate to your Master’s degree?

I currently work as a Business Technology Analyst for Deloitte Consulting LLP in Austin, Texas. I love my job! Although my day to day activities do not relate directly to my Master’s degree, my Master’s degree provided me with the analytical, problem solving, and organizational skills I need for my consulting position. In addition, since I work in technology consulting, rather than consulting in general, being an engineer has helped me navigate the technical aspects of my job.

6. What advice do you have for women across the world that are hoping to pursue their Master’s degree in the US?

a. Look into whether the program you are applying to is course work intensive or research intensive, or if there are several options (examples: MS vs. ME) before applying, and pick the program that fits you and your goals.
b. Contact students who are currently in the program before accepting the offer. You would be surprised at the amount of insight they will give you. As an added bonus, you can make a friend before you move to the new city and ask about other things like housing.
c. If you already know what company or industry you want to work in, try to attend a university close to or in an area where that company or industry is thriving. It is often easier to find jobs when you are in the same area.

7. What advice do you have for international students that want to find jobs in the US?

a. If you plan on approaching a company in a career fair, do your research – sometimes, it is better not to go to the booth at all than to go unprepared.
b. If there is an info session for a company you are interested in, arrive early and chat with the presenters. They are more likely to remember you that way than if you join the endless line of people with questions at the end of the info session.
c. Connections are a great way to find opportunities. That’s why it is a good idea to do your masters in a place where you have access to industry. If you meet someone from a company you are interested in working for, invite them for coffee!
d. Start applying for jobs one semester before you graduate. i.e. if you graduate in May, start your job search in September. Many careers, consulting for example, have early recruiting cycles, and you may miss out on opportunities if you start your job search the semester you are graduating.

8. What are your future plans?

I will (hopefully) start pursuing a PhD in Civil Engineering next Fall. I had just finished completing my applications before the New Year, and I am waiting for answers. I hope to eventually become a professor at a top tier university!

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