As a sports fan, I’m always fascinated by the sports of other cultures when I travel. I’ve played badminton in China, soccer in Ecuador and cricket in India. When strategizing how to reach international students on our campus, I assumed that many would have a similar line of interest. So we started hosting events to teach American sports such as workshops on football or trips to baseball games. These efforts had some success but they never caught fire like I had hoped. I was stumped. Why weren’t the sports fans among the international students rushing to us to learn the difference between a quarterback and a cornerback?
Then the Lord reminded me that while I always loved learning new sports when overseas, the greatest thrills came when someone would ask me to teach them an American sport. I would light up as I explained the gist of complicated American pastimes. So we flipped the script and instead of pulling international students into our world to learn our sports, I tracked down the cricket team on campus and started attending their matches. Pretty soon I was practicing with the team and playing in games. I was immediately brought in. No other American had ever shown interest in the sport they were incredibly passionate about. It wasn’t long before our friendships extended beyond the playing pitch and Gospel conversations arose naturally.
Below are some ideas for meeting international students where they are at, versus having them come to you. We don’t mean to say international ministry has no place for large attractional events; rather, we want to focus on its more intimate side, which will sustain those big events.
1. Plug in to the opportunities your school already offers
The best route at many schools is to first get in touch with the international scholars department and see what volunteer opportunities they already have, which will likely include many of the below suggestions. In that case, all you have to do is volunteer and show up. Many of our attempts to create the following initiatives from scratch were often, at best, duplications of what the school was already doing and often at worst, cheap facsimiles. Joining what the University is doing builds relationships and trust. You show the school officials that you are not just fishing for converts, but that you truly have compassion for these students. This trust, prayerfully, will lead to many more opportunities. It also saves you precious time and money that can be leveraged to multiply your efforts.
As a note: most universities have strict “no proselytizing requirements” for volunteers. If you sign such a volunteer agreement, honor it. This doesn’t mean you can never share your faith, but rather use these opportunities to build relationships, so that when the time does come you can share the Gospel with a clear conscience.
2. Apartments, Furniture, & Furnishings
Most new international students have very pressing needs to find apartments and the necessary furnishings. Can you imagine setting up shop in your college town for the next few years with only what could come over on a plane and limited understanding of cultural norms? If your university doesn’t have a system you can tap into, put together a game plan for how you can help. You need to have a very good idea of how many students you can transport and when, what apartments meet most international student criteria (cheap & close to campus), and how you can get them big furniture items like beds and couches. Once done, offer your unconditional help to the school.
3. Conversation Clubs
Conversation clubs (CC) are small groups of five or so students, led by one or two Americans, and are excellent ways for international students to not only practice English, but also ask whatever cultural questions they have. Conversation clubs are also good opportunities for believers to find out more about the students. Encourage your students to devote an hour of their week to these clubs. If your university does not already have a CC program, build up a base of volunteers and start it yourself. Advertise and then host the clubs on campus in places where you know internationals congregate. They may start slow, but if your own students are sincere in their desire to help these students, they will grow.
4. Attend International events
International students are proud of their cultures and excited to show them off, so be looking out for international student groups and the cultural events they put on. Let these students know you are interested in them and their culture by attending these events, volunteering, if possible, and even offering to host. Our own experience has been that international students support one another and go to each other’s events, so you may attend a Chinese New Year’s banquet and have the opportunity to meet several Indians.
5. Homes Away From Home
Finally, be hospitable. Be their friends. A European student once remarked that she use to have her feelings hurt by American friends, until she realized that when we say “see you later”, we really mean, “hope to see you again in the vague future”. Don’t let this be said of you. The majority of international students will never set foot in an American home. Invite them into where you live, even if it is just a dorm. Cook for them, and offer your kitchen so they can cook what they like. Live life with them, in all facets. Take them to the American football game and go with them to an “actual” football game. Even if they remain closed off to the Gospel, let them see that you love them like a brother or sister.
Cole Penick is the Campus Minister of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Caroline, have been married for six years and have two beautiful children. They love living on campus and sharing their lives with college students. He is convinced that college students are simultaneously the greatest mission field and missions force on the planet. Cole considers himself a Fayetteville restaurant expert and is obsessed with tailgate games. This is his twelfth football season as a part of the BCM. Twitter: @ColePenick
Tyler Copeland is the International Student Ministry Director at the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Arkansas. He is an Arkansas native from White Hall, AR, who fell in love with Fayetteville as a college student. He graduated from the #YOUofA in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and joined the BCM staff in 2011, just a few months after he & his wife Caitlyn married. Their son Jackson was born in March 2014. Tyler now works to evangelize & disciple international students at the university. He is working on a M.Div. in Bible Translation from Southern Seminary. Twitter: @tc0pe