International Students and the Liability of Foreignness |

International Students and the Liability of Foreignness

By QS Contributor

Updated August 27, 2014 Updated August 27, 2014

Enrico Davide Cremonese

If you are an international student, (or out of town student), you will almost certainly have been asked why you decided to move to [Insert Country/City] for your MBA. I hear this question every time I have a conversation with someone new at McGill University and, ultimately, started asking it myself.

It is a great question and the more I think about it the more I understand that it comes down to natural curiosity and the desire to find common traits or, at a bare minimum, talking points. Locals want to understand what you appreciate about their community and whether you could be a good fit; fellow foreigners and international students are subconsciously testing if your reasoning to study abroad resembles theirs and are looking to reinforce their decisions (especially during the first few months). Deciding to uproot yourself and move to another country is not an easy choice and once landed, we strive for validation.

This question can come in many shapes and forms, and is not always asked directly. Variations include subtle disguises ranging from ‘How do you like it here?’, ‘Do you miss your home country?’, ‘Do you like the food?’ to the more direct, ‘Why did you decide to study abroad?’ or ‘What was your GMAT score?’ (This one investigates what other options you had on your plate).

As trivial as it may sound, this central question is one that you need to know the answer to. Not only for yourself – it’s an interesting journey to understand your choices – but also for job interviews, as you attempt to differentiate yourself from others.

This question is particularly powerful because it helps interviewers assess many things at the same time. Firstly, do you know yourself? Are you able to critically challenge your choices? Secondly, are you able to provide a reply in a clear, concise and structured fashion? (Of particular importance for consulting jobs). And, finally, it tests the actual content. Indeed, why did you decide to study abroad? Are you in it for the long run? How easy will it be to integrate yourself into a company and culture?

One International student’s decision to attend McGill University

In my case I moved to Montréal, Canada, for three main reasons. Having a background in economics, and coming from Europe, I was looking for a country with a more stable economy and with the potential to withstand future global challenges. Secondly, among the cities in Canada, I chose Montréal because of its cultural proximity to (and yet, distance from) Europe. I also wasn’t ready to give up on learning French. Finally, I chose McGill University because of the integrated, tailored approach that is offered to the select cohort of students – I really wanted to leverage the potential of a small class (74 people for McGill University’s Class of 2015).

The Liability of Foreignness

Asking yourself these types of questions is great as it helps you see the similarities and differences between you and other international students. During my course in International Business Policy at McGill University, we came across the concept known as ‘Liability of Foreignness’, which, according to Gaur, Kumar & Sarathy is “the insight that firms face social and economic costs when they operate in foreign markets” or in layman’s terms, holding everything else constant, foreign companies will have a harder time than local ones. The reason I find this concept fascinating is that I believe it also applies to individuals going abroad.

Liability of foreignness is formed from a mixture of home and host country environmental factors which will, to a certain extent, determine how people approach you. Your home country background will carry hard-to-shake stereotypes which are not just good or just bad – I’m sure many international students can relate to this. In my case, being Italian is a double-edged sword in terms of Liability of foreignness. On the one hand, we are admired for our food, wines, soccer, arts and history, but on the other we are mocked for everything else. The main challenges related to the host country have to do with differences in regulations and social norms, but it is usually easy to get accustomed to these new ways of living, especially once you’ve made a conscious choice to move somewhere.

Lessons for study abroad students

After having relocated numerous times, I feel there are three main lessons I have learned. First, know yourself and understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. In order to overcome the liability of foreignness you will have to leverage a combination of unique firm and person-specific resources and capabilities which will distinguish you from others. This step is critical to figuring out your competitive advantage and how to portray it when needed.

Second, be open-minded and receptive to other cultures, opinions and especially different ways of expressing a concept. It is important to understand what is being said and to remove any judgement on the way that message is delivered.

Third, network extensively and have as many interactions as possible with fellow foreigners, as well as locals. This will help you identify opportunities faster and also have a much deeper understanding of what elements are common to the country you have moved to.

With these thoughts in mind, I wish the best of luck to all of those who are embarking on their own study abroad adventure!

About Enrico Davide Cremonese

Enrico D. Cremonese is currently pursuing an MBA with a dual concentration in Global Strategy and Leadership and Finance at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal. He holds a bachelor's degree in International Economics and Management from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy and an MSc in Energy Economics from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Throughout his career Enrico has worked in management consulting, with an initial focus on big data analytics projects. Enrico truly believes in the importance of a balanced life and enjoys his active involvement in the Montreal non-profit community as well as hosting friends for a taste of Italian cuisine and a visit to the Opera.

This article was originally published in April 2014 . It was last updated in August 2014

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