By Stefani Varner
Church Initiatives Team, International Mission Board
During my senior year of college, I was invited to join more than 500 Chinese students and their families to celebrate Chinese New Year. I spent several hours eating authentic food, watching talent shows and videos from celebrations around the world, and learning about various customs and traditions.
The time came for the door prize drawing, and suddenly, I heard my name called. I realized that most of the students in the room were cheering for me and encouraging me to go on stage to claim my prize. I had won a gift certificate for a Peking duck at the local Chinese restaurant.
In the weeks following, I was contacted by dozens of students who wanted to take me to experience my first Peking duck. Even when I told them I had already used the certificate, they still wanted to introduce me to their favorite Chinese food. I ate at that Chinese restaurant with a different group of students at least once a week for the rest of the semester. It was the perfect culmination to four years of intentional relationship building with people from around the world, and it allowed me a few final opportunities to share the gospel with my friends before I graduated.
University missions fields. American university campuses serve as global intersections for education, ideas, and interactions with the world’s future leaders. God has given evangelical university students in the United States unprecedented opportunities to live missionally and intentionally build relationships with people who represent some of the largest unreached people groups in the world.
But where do we start? How can we build these friendships and share the gospel with our classmates from other countries? The key to reaching international students is intentionality. We must be willing to invest our time, energy, and resources in order to build genuine relationships with these students.
Here are some tips for intentionality with international students on your campus:
Look for information about the students studying at your university. Your school probably has an office or a center that supports international students and helps them with visas and immigration, academic advising, and other details related to being an international student. Ask for information about the students. What countries do they come from? How many students are here? Is there a certain dorm or apartment complex where many of them live? What are they studying? What are some of their biggest challenges or needs?
Look for cross-cultural programs, clubs, and communities to join. Take interest in their holidays, customs, and traditions and don’t be afraid to try new things. Play cricket or participate in Holi games with the Indian Student Association. Celebrate Chinese New Year with the Chinese student association. Learn to create henna art with Middle Eastern women. Ask your African friends to take you to their favorite ethnic restaurant. Learn to paint or dance or cook according to the ethnic traditions of your friends. The possibilities for how you can make connections and learn new things are limitless.
Help with conversational English. Meet over coffee or tea with your international friends just to talk. This gives time for them to practice their English in a low-pressure environment and gives you a chance to get to know them. Ask questions and find out more about them. Be sure to tell them all about yourself, too.
Be a guide to navigating life in America. If you’ve ever traveled to another country, you know that normal everyday tasks can be a challenge when you are outside of your home environment. It’s no different for international students. Serve them by showing them the ropes. Pick them up from the airport. Take them to the grocery store and help them find the basic necessities. Teach them how to drive and help them obtain their driver’s license. Help them figure out how to accomplish tasks like riding the bus, going to the bank, and finding things in the library.
Invite them into your community and allow them to see your everyday life. Are you hanging out and watching movies with your friends on Friday night? Invite your international friends to join you. Organize a game of ultimate Frisbee on your campus lawn. Bake cookies together. Go hiking on nearby trails. Doing life together is the best way to build relationships.
Teach them about American traditions and share your favorite activities. American holidays are great times to share with your international friends. Invite them to come with you to have Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Organize a Christmas gift exchange, decorate a Christmas tree, bake cookies, and tell the Christmas story. Organize an Easter egg hunt and invite them to worship with you in your church. Host a cookout on Memorial Day or the 4th of July. Many of these holidays offer easy bridges to talking about spiritual things.
Be bold in sharing the gospel. Many of the students who come to our campuses have never heard the gospel, and unless we open our mouths and speak truth to them, we will miss the incredible opportunity to declare God’s glory among the nations in our own backyard. As you build relationships with your international friends, show genuine care and love for them and serve them well, but make sure they know what you believe.
Pray with them before sharing a meal. Talk about the things you are reading in your Bible. Tell them about the ways you trust God and teach them about the relationship you have in Christ. Look for open doors to show them how they can experience God’s grace and goodness for themselves.