International Student Perspectives with Rehema Wachira
Rehema Wachira (UVA’12) is a Software Developer in Nairobi, Kenya. At UVA, she majored in Political and Social Thought and had actively involved as an RA and Orientation Leader at UVA. Let’s hear her incredible transition from humanity studies at UVA and NGO internship experiences to the software engineering field.
Can you describe a little about yourself and your career trajectories after graduation at UVA?
- I came to UVA with no specific major in mind, just my mother's hopes that I'd go to the Comm School. I knew that I wanted to study human systems - political, cultural, economic - and how and why they're created. I was lucky to find exactly what I was looking for in the multidisciplinary Political and Social Thought program.
- After graduation I was once again unsure of which career path to take so I decided to explore different options during what I called The Year of the Internships. I applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows F1 student visa holders to work in the US for 12 months, and dove in!
- I was lucky to have three very different internships at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the Kenya Mission to the UN, and the launch campaign for the empowering docufilm Girl Rising. While I had very different responsibilities and tasks at each internship, I found a common thread - a knack for crafting messages and communications that resonated with specific audiences.
- After the OPT period ended, I was excited to move back to Nairobi and began working as a Marketing Executive for a telecommunications company.
What would you advise students who are pressured to study Comm or Engineering to stay in the U.S. more easily?
- I think this is a very subjective and personal decision. Each person has to consider the employment opportunities available in their home country compared to what they may be able to find in the US.
- Whatever you choose to study, your ability to create a post-student life for yourself at home or abroad will depend more on your resourcefulness, perseverance, and the strength of your networks than your first degree. It will not be a straightforward journey, but you will find your way!
Why did this kind of work interest you and how did you get started?
- My transition from Marketing to Software Development was entirely accidental.
- I was working for the telecommunications company that created mobile money (M-PESA) in Kenya, a technology that completely transformed the country's financial ecosystem long before Apple Pay or Venmo were created in the West!
- I saw the transformative power of technology and wanted to be directly involved in shaping those kinds of solutions. I decided my next step was to become a Product Manager. I figured if I learned a little about software, I'd be better prepared to make the transition to managing technology products. A few months of online tutorials later and I was hooked on coding itself! I now work for a company called Andela that helps companies all over the world extend their engineering teams with Africa's top tech talent.
- My experiences as a Marketing professional have been a huge asset in my new career as a Software Developer. Contrary to popular belief, development work is heavily team-focused and requires constant clear communication and deep understanding between developers, designers, product managers, business leads and, most importantly, customers.
What was the most difficult part of applying for internship and job as an international student?
- As an international student, I was only eligible to work on-grounds, and only jobs that were not work-study. This did feel pretty limiting at first but I was able to find work throughout my 4 years at UVA.
- I was an Orientation Leader, a Residential Advisor at the IRC (my home away from home!) and a Student Activities Center Assistant.
- These university jobs were such an important part of my UVA experience and instrumental in helping me get my internships after college as well because I could use my experiences to demonstrate crucial skills like creative problem solving, teamwork and leadership.
- External internships might seem more prestigious but I would argue that university jobs are also fantastic preparation for life after college. You might find yourself working with a far more diverse set of people who experience a much wider range of challenges than you might otherwise find within your own friend groups or even at your typical American workplace. The 'soft skills' that you practice working a year or two (as opposed to one summer) serving your university community will likely increase your workplace maturity more than you can imagine. And that will definitely set you apart from your peers as you begin your career.
What were some resources that you found really helpful in the process? How did you start your internship and job search?
- I read lots of blogs and articles from people who were working in the fields I was interested in. These helped me visualize what a day-in-the-life might look like at different stages of a career. I recommend The Muse (for all things work-related), The Everygirl (their career profiles are great for everyone, not just women), and for the entrepreneurs I'd suggest IndieHackers (profiles ordinary folks building sustainable small-mid sized businesses) and How I Built This (podcast profiling folks who've built large enterprises).
- But there really is no substitute for experiencing it yourself. When financial or family constraints mean that you have to grab the first full-time job you can get, you should still work at as if you're in your dream job. That means soaking up everything you can and volunteering to assist those with more experience. Not only will your colleagues notice (and you'll need their recommendations), you will also be adding to your toolbox of skills. If you identify another field you'd like to work in, you'll have already built a network of people who can vouch for your abilities and your enthusiasm to help your transition.
Many students are stressed about job search in the U.S. that they neglect to search for jobs back home.
- Great point! I think students should cultivate their networks at home throughout their time at UVA. Keep up with the happenings in your fields/industries of interest. If you get to go home for a visit, attend local events and ask your friends and family to connect you with people already working. This will help you figure out the options available to you, what local work cultures are like, and help you build an important network if you decide to apply for work back home. You have to be well informed to be able to make the right decision for yourself. You don't want to wait until you're at the airport to begin your job search.
- Another thing to keep in mind, especially if you're from a developing country like I am, is that your experience and familiarity with the US can help you position yourself in a number of industries from education to tourism if you can point to relevant experience. Because our economies are relatively less saturated, there may actually be more opportunities for you at home
What is something you wished you know that would be valuable for international students or anyone who started in your field?
- After graduation, it took me 5 years, 4 internships, 2 jobs and a completely unexpected career change to figure out the kind of work that keeps me excited. If in another 5 years I no longer get the same joy from creating solutions with code as I do today, I'll still have the experience, knowledge, and networks of fantastic people gained from my time as a developer. I'm always surprised by how my seemingly disparate set of accumulated skills actually reinforce each other and make me better at what I do.
- Your career is a journey, not a destination. Be as well-informed as you can be about the choices you're making and trust your gut to help show you the way.