Practical Steps to Reaching International Students

Imagine stepping into a brand new country, looking around, and seeing hardly anything familiar. You start walking down the road, looking for some signs of “home.” Maybe your favorite coffee shop or even the local Target, but you see nothing recognizable. The signs above the shop are in a language that you have barely studied yet, and cannot read because of unfamiliarity with the local jargon and lack of fluency in the language.

These may be some of the thoughts and feelings international students have when they come to America to work or study. Some students have never left their families before or stepped outside of their home country. Many of the students may not have had much interaction with Americans or people of a different culture.

International Students are present on almost every campus in the United States. It is estimated that around 1,000,000 international students study on campuses across the U.S. each year.  Out of these students, a large portion of them do not get the opportunity to visit American homes. In fact, many of them do not even build solid relationships with American students, but instead may find friends from their home countries, missing out on an opportunity to interact with other cultures as much.

Take a moment to think about this: If international students are coming from all over the world, how can we strategically glorify God through this? Many students come from areas in or near the 10/40 window, and may therefore be from UNREACHED areas of the world. How amazing is it that they have come to America to study? They are exposed to a completely different way of life, and are out of their normal element. Most importantly, while they study in America they have the opportunity to hear the gospel—if we will step up and tell them.

How do you even start the process of sharing the gospel with international students? It’s pretty simple and essentially just making new friends.

First, take a step forward, and meet internationals! If this sounds intimidating to you at first, remember, these students are probably just as eager, if not more, to meet a new friend. Put yourself in their shoes, and consider how you might feel if you were the one in a foreign country.

Next, start building the relationship! Don’t be afraid to ask the students questions about themselves, their country, families, even the political and religious beliefs of their country. First and foremost, you want to be a learner of their culture.

If you pray for opportunities to share Christ, they will come along. Read Colossians 4:2-6. Paul talks about praying for opportunities to open up, and to “conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders” (NASB). Many times, as you go in as a “learner” when interacting with Internationals, situations will arise fairly naturally for you to share the gospel. For example, ask a student what is important to them. Many times, students will talk about their family or friends. Often, as they begin to talk about family, religion is often a huge part, even if the students themselves do not actively practice.

Remember, as a welcomer, you need to be the initiator! Reaching out to an international student will most likely take time; it could take a whole college career for one student to come to Christ. You should be willing and ready to invest time and energy in this friendship.

If you need ideas to help initiate a friendship with an international student consider volunteering for international student orientation if it exists on your campus or to pick up new students at the airport. Volunteer to be an English partner for international students or take a job on campus where you know international students work, i.e. the cafeteria, grounds/ maintenance (these jobs are usually not considered the “best” on campus jobs!) And if all else fails, simply walk up to an international student, introduce yourself and ask them who they are and where they are from!

Here are some tips and things to remember as you are building relationships with international students:

  • Ask questions about them. Everyone likes to share where they are from, what their favorite foods or music is, and more. This aspect of building a friendship is very important and you will gain a lot of favor if you take time to be a learner.

  • Research their country online by looking at the CIA world fact book, and regularly catch international headlines; pay close attention to countries your friends are from. Most internationals keep up with what is going on at home, and will be impressed if you are too!

  • Invite them to campus events, or to hang out with your friends.

  • Ask them to cook traditional food, or their favorite meal from home.

  • Offer to take them to the grocery store (and maybe even research to find an ethnic store if they need some rare ingredients). You could even organize a larger meal, and invite many international students, a few Americans (keep this to a minimum), and have an International Potluck!

  • Invite a student home (with your parents’ permission) for a weekend, or a holiday like Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. Not only will they have the opportunity to experience an American version of these holidays, all three of these can be wonderful opportunities to share the gospel when you share the meaning behind the holidays.

Think about where International Students are most prevalent on your campus. Are they in your classes, do many hang out at the on campus coffee shop, or do internationals spend most of their time studying in the library? Think through some strategic ways that you could stretch yourself to be more available to meet these students. If you already know some international students, begin to pray for them and write down three practical steps that you could begin to initiate a friendship with them. Once again, think through some ideas that you think are “impossible,” and pray that God would open up the doors to share the gospel.

To learn more about world cultures and religions, check out these resources:

Check out this student who is committed to building friendships with international students:

“All I had starting out in international ministry was a passion for hospitality and desire to act upon Gods call to make disciples of all nations. At my university, 1% of the student population was international, and serving them only was something akin to leaving the 99 to find the one sheep. Boldly starting conversations helped me find out if a student was international. After this, I spent as much time with international students as I could, listening to them, inviting them to dinner and always being prepared to give an answer for the joy I have in Christ.” —David