Many new graduates have work experience prior to graduate school and they are often surprised to see that employers are looking for “current experience” and will disqualify a candidate simply because they did not do any “work” during their education.
This actually applies to everyone who took a break from their career whether it is because of family, personal, unemployment… A break in employment is always a tough-sell.
When economy was booming and companies were hiring on campus things were much easier for recent grads, however they now have to compete with a sea of experienced candidates who are often over-qualified but willing to take a cut.
In such a competitive market it is not surprising to see employers dismissing previous experience, offshore experience and even out-of-state experience. Most companies want candidates who are currently working (or just finished working) in a local company. They will only consider your US experience, so you will be surprised to see that your 5 years of experience back in your hometown will have minimum impact on your salary and job description.
I cannot emphasize the importance of getting hands on experience throughout your education. The experience should be out of your school. Most candidates would be doing some sort of tutoring or assistance to professors, however unless you work for the University’s administration your reference will be dismissed.
We go through this on a daily basis with our candidates, unfortunately references from professors are not considered as “work experience”.
If you are not eligible to do internships, go ahead and find volunteer opportunities, as long as you are in a professional organization you can use that as a reference.