Studying abroad can feel like a vacation – a break from real school (at your home university) and real life. But there’s so much more to studying abroad if you’ll let Jesus guide you and be willing to learn from him.
I spent my junior year studying abroad in Australia. I did a little travel, made life-long friends, and came to faith in Jesus. Here are four things I learned about growing my faith while studying abroad:
1. Connect with a local faith community as soon as you can.
I got plugged into a local church’s campus ministry within my first four weeks. They became the witnessing community that helped me see what following Jesus was really about. Whether it’s a church of expats, locals, or a campus fellowship, find a place to get connected and do it within your first 2-4 weeks. InterVarsity has sister movements in 150 countries around the world – see if there is one at your university. My participation in campus ministry while studying abroad not only led to my conversion, it also introduced to me the importance of loving and serving others. In the midst of my multiethnic Christian community, I learned about God’s heart for reconciliation and got a glimpse into the diversity of God’s kingdom. Connecting to a local faith community isn’t just necessary for your own spiritual health; it’s an opportunity to experience what God is doing in a different part of the world.
2. Be a learner.
While studying abroad, it’s likely you’ll discover all kinds of cultural idiosyncrasies – from breakfast preferences (vegemite on toast?) to concepts of time (does “on time” mean arriving 10 minutes early, on the dot, or 20 minutes past the hour?). Don’t be quick to make judgments or draw conclusions about the things you see; instead, ask questions and listen to how people respond. The differences (and similarities) we observe across cultures provide both a glimpse into the diversity of God’s kingdom and the similarities that unite us. In Australia, I found myself immersed in a multicultural faith community of white Australians, South East Asians, and Africans. Invitations to people’s homes were widespread, and I observed students loaning money to their friends on more than one account. Their lives of faith stood in stark contrast to the culture I was familiar with – one that values privacy and making good appearances. From them, I tasted firsthand God’s generous invitation to come and eat at his table.
3. Building relationships is still important.
I love to travel and definitely did so in Australia. But I didn’t view every weekend as an opportunity to get away. Aside from one trip with students from my home university, the rest of my travel was with students I met locally. As a result, I forged deep friendships within the local community. There will be many opportunities to travel while you study abroad, but don’t overlook investing in relationships with people locally as well.
4. Pay attention to the people God is putting in your path.
Sometimes the structure of a study abroad program or the length of your stay makes it difficult to build relationships with people locally. This might mean you’ll need to make extra effort to build relationship with locals, or it could be that God’s calling you to invest in someone else for this time. Everyone studying abroad is sharing a similar experience away from his or her support networks, so friendships can develop quickly. During my first visit to church, I was introduced to another American studying abroad in Australia. In contrast to my spiritual confusion, Jana was confident about her faith in Christ. She befriended me and invested deeply in my life. From her, I learned about pursuing godly relationships, the importance of developing a devotional life, and how to listen for God’s voice. While the larger community showed me God’s love on a grand scale, Jana gave me a picture of walking with God daily. Because Jana was paying attention to the people God put in her path, we not only developed a lasting friendship, but her handprint is now etched in my spiritual foundations.
In many ways, learning from Jesus while studying abroad isn’t a whole lot different from when you’re home. Keep asking God to show you what he’s doing; be open to learning and be ready for surprises!
This week, we’re posting practical tips for following Jesus as a college student. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5.
Tammy Eckhart serves as Campus Team Leader in West Ohio.