Nearly 800,000 international students come to the U.S. each year to study at universities across the country. From incoming freshmen to visiting scholars, these students face the challenge of navigating both the university world and a culture different from their own. And when they arrive, they’ll likely be feeling both excited to explore a new place and lonely at being on their own in an unfamiliar setting.
Here are five simple ways you can provide a welcoming presence and a steady framework for these students as they begin to arrive on campus.
1. Be visible.
Don’t just be visible; be visible early on. If students recognize you as friendly and welcoming at the beginning of the year, chances are higher that they’ll seek you out later in the semester when they're ready to dive into activities. (Many international students focus entirely on their studies the first semester to make sure they do well.)
If you’re part of a group or organization on campus, set up a table clearly showing that you care about internationals (maps and signs in multiple languages usually help!). Have information about your group and sign-up sheets for your activities.
Don’t just wait for them to come to you, though. Go to your campus’s International Student Office and volunteer to pick up students from the airport, help them with orientation, or provide other assistance they might need.
2. Be intentional.
Just like with any new student you’re hoping to reach, follow-up is key. But with international students, it will likely take more intentionality on your part. Personally invite them to your activities—and don’t hesitate to invite them multiple times. In some cultures, it’s common to refuse something at first and wait for the other person to show they care by persisting. On the other hand, you want to make sure you are aware of their nonverbal communication so you can tell when they truly are not interested! This may be the first time you really have to understand other cultures’ values, especially direct/indirect communication. (See #3.)
3. Be aware.
Any time multiple cultures are involved, the possibility for things to get awkward or uncomfortable exists. Maybe you said something that was insulting to them, or perhaps they stayed in your dorm room way longer than you thought they would. Understanding different cultures can help you avoid potential mistakes and clear up conflict more easily. Quickly brush up on cultural differences with booklets like Crossing Cultures Here and Now, or go more in depth with A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures. Having a basic cross-cultural understanding will help you recognize where conflict might occur.
4. Address needs.
One major way you can serve internationals is by offering to be an English conversation partner. Set a structured time where students can come and receive help with their English skills. But also look for other needs students might have. Are they without a car? Organize weekly rides to grocery stores. Have they moved into unfurnished apartments? Begin a furniture drive and help them move in. Did they bring their families with them? Start a morning coffee gathering for spouses so that they can get out of their apartments and meet others. Have resources on culture shock available for them for that midpoint in the semester when they just want to go home.
5. Provide opportunities to explore and learn.
There are a hundred fun ways to do this. You might set up events to help the students get to know your city. Do afternoon outings downtown, weekend camping trips to nearby state parks, or visits to the zoo or great hiking spots. (And make sure you set aside plenty of time for photos!)
In addition, help internationals learn about your culture, and invite them to teach you about theirs! Autumn is a great time to introduce students to American football, cook-outs, and Halloween. You can hold themed events around American holidays and then invite international students to share about their national holidays or favorite sports.
Of course, with whatever events you or your group offer, make sure you clearly state when things are happening—both weekly activities like Bible studies or worship and one-time events like Christian speakers and discussions. This establishes trust and good relations with both the students and the International Student Office.
Above all, be friendly and respectful! Strive to see all of God’s people reached on your campus, “so that [God’s] ways may be known on earth, [his] salvation among all nations” (Psalm 67:2).
Sharon is an InterVarsity alumna from the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign. She now wears her orange and blue in Madison, Wisconsin, as the communications assistant for InterVarsity’s International Student Ministry.
Find an International Student Ministry InterVarsity chapter near you to join or serve at as a volunteer.