How can you be more welcoming to new students on your campus? Here are three helpful tricks I’ve discovered through the years.
Catch up with your friends first.
Don’t ignore this step.
This is how it will go down. You’ll be at an InterVarsity event, striking up a conversation with someone who’s checking your fellowship out for the first time. You know that they’re asking one big question as you interact with them: “Are people like me welcome here?”
And then your good buddy from last semester walks up. You haven’t talked all summer. You don’t want to ditch the new student, but you’re distracted. The conversation stalls. They can tell you want to talk to someone else.
Like I said, take the time to catch up with your friends before events where you might meet new students. Make a phone call. Grab coffee. Reconnect. Then you’ll be free to really engage that new student—to give them your full attention—and to show them that they really and truly are welcome in InterVarsity.
Practice small talk.
I’m not naturally great at small talk. I like to jump right in, get to the heart of the matter, dig deep. Small talk feels forced, shallow, and rocky.
But I’ve forced myself to learn how to do it, and here’s why: Small talk creates space for you to earn trust.
I learned this from my fraternity and sorority students at Washington and Lee University, where I served on staff for five years. Every year I watched Greek students build relationships with incoming first-year students. Not every new student became a best friend. But many became good friends, real friends.
One day I finally asked Chris, a sophomore in Lambda Chi Alpha and the best friend-maker I’ve ever met, how he made so many friends on campus. He said that he just asked people questions and listened to what they had to say. I groaned and complained that I hated small talk. Then he dropped this on me: I like to give people a chance to be interesting.
He helped me realize that I was missing something in all the small talk going on around me. So I started paying attention to my Greek students.
Here’s what I found:
They asked get-to-know-you questions. (Where are you from? What do you do for fun?)
They asked experience questions. (How’ve the first weeks of school been? How’s it being away from home?)
They asked opinion questions. (What do you think about . . . ?)
They affirmed and asked follow-up questions. (That’s insightful. Why do you think that is?)
And their big secret? They practiced asking these questions.
Armed with this new perspective and these tools, I started practicing. And I found that, with the right questions, small talk became interesting. It became interesting because the people I was talking to were interesting. I just needed to give them a chance to show it.
Welcoming doesn’t end after a first meeting. In fact, being super friendly when you first meet someone and then having no memory of them when you next see them is almost worse than not welcoming them at all. Am I that forgettable? they might ask themselves as your eyes slide past them without recognition.
Imagine drinking a magic cup of coffee that made you invisible. People would bump into you on the campus sidewalk. The barista would never serve you. Professors would never call on you in class. But then, someone calls your name. And you can see in their eyes that they’re glad to see you. And you’re glad to be seen.
Everyone wants to be memorable. But few people remember us. In many arenas of life, we’re a name on a list or a mere number. This anonymity presses on us when we jump from high school to college. New faces everywhere. Who knows us? Who remembers us? Remembering people communicates hospitality.
And if anyone should remember people, Christians should. We believe that God has made everyone in his image, that he loves them and knows their name. So they should be important to us too.
How do you do it? Easy.
Repeat their names in your first conversation with them.
Pay attention to their face (not their clothes).
Write down one thing to remember about them.
Pray for them throughout the week.
Trust me. Something powerful happens when you remember someone’s name, when you remember a story they told, when you remember their favorite snack, when you remember where they’re from, when you remember what they’re studying and what they’re passionate about.
Our campuses are full of men and women who are walking around feeling invisible. Unknown, unremembered, and unwelcome.
But God knows and remembers them. Let us go and do likewise.
Steve Tamayo is a strategist serving with InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship (LaFe), Creative Labs, and Multiethnic Initiatives. You can can support his ministry using this link: donate.intervarsity.org/donate#9101.