By Lisa Rieck

Christmas in Russia, Anyone?

Although I had a great college experience overall, I do have a few regrets. One is that I didn’t study abroad. (In my defense, I was supposed to spend a J-Term in Israel, but the trip got cancelled due to safety concerns. So I spent J-Term in . . . Philly.) Why did I not take advantage of the opportunity to spend a semester in another country? For just about the same amount of money my semester in Pennsylvania cost me, I could have studied in Greece. Or Chile or India or Uganda.

Thankfully, many current college students—about 274,000 of them, according to a new report out from the Institute of International Education (IIE)—will not share my regret. They’re fully embracing the opportunities they have to study in places like Italy, Costa Rica, and the Czech Republic. In fact, the report shows that the number of students who study abroad has been steadily growing since 1993, a fact which IIE has been celebrating this week, in particular, during International Education Week.

In Case You Need Persuading . . .

Clearly, we can all learn a lot from each other. And, with more ways than ever to connect with people halfway around the globe, we clearly are learning a lot from each other. This is good. The danger, though, is to think that we know what a place is like without having gone. Ask anyone who’s experienced The Running of the Bulls in Spain what they learned on their trip that they couldn’t have learned from their kitchen table—and then be prepared to sit and listen for several hours. Or days.

In addition to the extreme adrenaline rushes that arise from events like running for your life with a 3,000-pound bull on your heels, studying abroad can

  • give us a deeper appreciation for the wide scope of God's beautiful creativity in the people and places he's made
  • introduce us to new textures, tastes, and scents
  • correct misguided assumptions and stereotypes we've subconsciously held about countries other than ours
  • open our eyes to new ways to pray to and worship God
  • give us a picture of hospitality as a way of life
  • make us more humble, more willing to learn from others, and quicker to admit there might be a better way to do something than how we've always done it (a good life skill in general, and particularly good preparation for married life, should you find yourself there one day)

I did finally make it overseas, thankfully—two times to Cambodia. But take my word for it (especially you who are students now): If you aspire to visit (as opposed to move to) another country—it’s much easier to go as a student. Your college will do a lot of the work for you (for instance, they’ll probably find you a housing situation that will allow your mom to sleep at least a few nights while you’re gone). And most study abroad programs won’t cost much more than you normally pay for a semester. The chances of you having five months free and money to pay for international flights and months’ worth of housing and food at any point in your life after college are slim. Especially if you’re an English major. (Trust me.)

America Is Still a Land of Opportunity

What we Americans sometimes forget, in the midst of our suffering economy and election-overload hangover, is that thousands of students from all over the world also come to the U.S. each year to study and explore horizons that might not be available to them closer to home. IIE reports that a record-high 764,495 international students studied at American schools during the 2011-2012 school year.

InterVarsity's International Student Ministries (ISM) staff has found that one of the horizons international students often choose to learn more about is faith in Jesus. Because they arrive eager to learn and try new things and experience American culture, they’re generally also open to finding out more about Christianity and the Bible—a book they know has been important to Western culture for hundreds of years.

Thanksgiving and Christmas provide great opportunities for international students to both experience American traditions and dialogue about faith through ISM house parties happening in various locations around the U.S. ISM Bible studies, furniture giveaways, and hayrides also open doors for conversations about culture, faith, and Jesus. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about 50 international students regularly gather in “family groups” to study the Bible together; a third of those students do not yet know Jesus. And at Penn State, an ISM team leader is meeting with a group that includes Chinese, Brazilian, and German students to challenge them to live for Jesus on their campus.

Want to Join the Fun?

You may not be able to take a semester-long history class in China to celebrate International Education Week, but you can take small steps toward going overseas. Watch for and pray about opportunities to travel internationally to serve or to learn. If you’re a student—go to Brazil or Thailand or England, for crying out loud!! Or at least explore study abroad options through your school or InterVarsity.

The flip side—extending hospitality to international students—is also important. Why not invite a student or two (those who don’t have an InterVarsity chapter on their campus!) to your home for Thanksgiving? Ask them about their family traditions, their childhood education, their favorite places in their home town, and introduce them to some of your own favorite traditions and places.

For all you Smarty Marties out there who’ve already engaged in international education, give us a peek at the profound and perspective-altering experiences you had by leaving us a comment or two (we’ll try not to get too jealous). Where have you traveled to? What did you learn?

And who wants to buy me a plane ticket?

Lisa Rieck is a writer and copyeditor on InterVarsity’s communications team. She worked at InterVarsity Press for over nine years as a proofreader and Bible study editor (and, as it were, resident limerick-writer). She is continually inspired by the beauty of the sky and loves good conversation with family and friends over steaming-hot beverages.

You might also be interested in:

God in Guyana

From One International Student to Another

A Global Wave of Prayer

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