An Education in International Relations

Rezia Usman grew up in Indonesia with an Indian father and a half Chinese, half Indonesian mother. Although growing up in this rich cultural environment always made her feel that she was not able to fit in anywhere, her unique background ultimately prepared her to be more resilient living in environments and with cultures different from her own. As Senior Regional Manager at Woosong University in South Korea, Usman regularly navigates cultural complexities as she handles the university’s international relationships, connecting them with other universities, organizations, and industries around the world.

Usman has a particular passion for international education. In 2008, she had the opportunity to move to the United States to teach Indonesian language and culture at both Arizona State University and at Ohio University where she completed her master’s in applied linguistics. Coming to the United States was her first time living abroad, and she found the diverse community and educational environment to be very rewarding. Her experience in the U.S. launched her pursuit of similar opportunities in international education that would lead up to her current position in international relations. In this week’s podcast, Rezia Usman describes her best practices for approaching adaptation, opportunity, and networks in a career—and in life.

The Adaptive Mindset

Working with people from different countries requires an adaptive approach. This adaptive approach can mean many things in many situations. As an individual employee, the adaptive mindset means customizing one’s behavior in each cross-cultural interaction based on professional judgment and an understanding of the culture. On a personal career level, it may simply mean adapting quickly to changing circumstances in the job market. In a corporate environment, the adaptive mindset could be characterized by how the corporation as an entity interacts with other parties, and how it markets product and service offerings to clients.

“Corporate culture in each country is different, but how we manage it is always a constant effort.” Extending beyond solely “corporate” culture to include universities, small businesses, private companies and the like, each organization has its own processes and goals in place. These embody the entity’s internal culture and management style. The culture at Woosong University reflects the values of many in South Korea, where organizations have a very top-down, collectivist approach to operations. As Usman has adjusted to her organization’s internal culture, she has learned that to move forward in her role as a cultural liaison, she must first adhere to their internal process by securing the approval of her superiors and acting in the best interest of the group.

When moving the management focus from internal operations (a uniform approach) to external interaction (a customized approach), it is important to understand what values influence the other party. How do you learn to do this in environments you have never experienced? Usman advocates doing personal research into the culture and gathering the insights of those who have more experience, different backgrounds, and an understanding of those countries. Expanding and utilizing one’s network is essential to successfully adapting to new environments.

An adaptive mindset is also important for navigating one’s own career path. It is increasingly common for professionals not to know exactly what they will be doing or where they will be going in the long-term. The workforce has shifted from finding security in establishing roots to finding security in exploiting every opportunity. Luckily, the millennial generation is growing used to this world that moves forward so quickly. “We are that flexible and adaptive, that we can move around so easily.” Constant change may not always seem positive, but if it can bring happiness and opportunity, then we can at least embrace that change with positivity.

The Opportunistic Mindset

According to Usman, there is no such thing as a bad opportunity. Everyone will make mistakes or land in less than ideal circumstances, but you can choose to make the best of them. What does that look like in practice? It might begin with focusing on expanding your personal network or on developing the skills that will allow you to move up or out of that area. Whatever your goal for the opportunity, just aim to succeed in that aspect that you’ve identified. Young students preparing to go out into the workforce shouldn’t be paralyzed by the fear of choosing the wrong opportunity because many paths can lead to the same destination. Just enjoy the journey!

In Rezia Usman’s journey, there was never one particular moment where she knew what she wanted to do or where she wanted to go—the path to working in the field of international relations and education has been an evolving theme for her. She initially chose education because it was an area her family was involved in and she recognized that aptitude in herself. She also recognized her social need to interact with other people through her work. By prioritizing those two values, everything else has been an opportunity to explore. Her superiors have given her more of those opportunities as she has learned to excel in handling new situations, cultures, and people.

The Network Mindset

Developing one’s professional network is an opportunity that you should never pass up. Whenever you meet someone in a conference or by chance, it is very important that you add them to your network. Usman explains that “by having a large network like that, everything they do is within your reach.” In fact, Usman secured her position at Woosong University through her own network. The gentleman who previously held the position was also Indonesian, and they crossed paths while studying in the United States. After their initial meeting, Usman took the time to reach out once a year and follow up with this contact. There are multiple ways to follow up: you might take the time to recognize a professional accomplishment, new promotion, or discuss a topic of interest—whether that be travel, reading, or athletics! Because Usman and her predecessor had come to know one another on a personal level, he recommended she serve as his replacement because he knew she would enjoy and excel in the work.

Although your network should work on your behalf, the act of networking is not about you. The focus should be on learning about and connecting with other people in a way that makes them feel genuinely welcomed. This kind of positive first impression has a lasting impact that makes you particularly memorable. Networking is not a one-size-fits-all effort—it is an abstract and intangible effort that depends on the time frame and nature of the relationship you’re seeking with the other person. Simply passing out business cards or adding the person to your LinkedIn page will not be enough if you haven’t taken the time to establish a relationship and if you don’t plan to utilize those mediums to communicate in the future. For example, if you connect on social media, make sure your content will engage the other person further or send a quick follow-up message to show your interest. Technology allows us to perpetuate those initial connections.

In Conclusion: Connection

International relations rely on the ability to make connections—connections between cultures, connections between opportunities, and connections between people. In a final note of advice to students, Usman stresses the importance of approaching everything with a learning mindset. Adaptation will require learning about the new cultural and organizational environments in which you will operate. Seizing opportunity will require some research into what your end goal is and what skills you can develop to get there. Building your network will require learning about people and how to relate to them. Learning to connect these dots in each of these aspects of life will help young professionals to develop and demonstrate excellence in any environment they may face.

To learn more from Rezia Usman about her experiences making connections in South Korea, listen to our podcast here.

40 views1 comment