Be Our Guest

Befriend an international student during the holidays

Illustration by Jared Sutphin

By late December, exams will be over. Students will leave university campuses to go home for the holidays. But not all dorms will be empty, especially not the multicultural housing where Russian, Japanese, Chinese and other students from around the world live.

Almost 700,000 international students attend colleges around the United States, and most will not go home for holiday breaks, but rather will stay in their university’s town. The holidays, therefore, can be lonely, but you might be the solution.

In fact, you are qualified to host an international student anytime of year right in your own home.

Why? Simple. You’re reading this. Whether single, dating, married or widowed, you are qualified to befriend an international guest.

International students want to be with you, but sadly, more than 80 percent who visit our cities and towns are never invited into an American’s home. Most of our international guests never get to be just that: a guest in our homes.

Kate Hagborg, staff member with Bridges International—the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ serving internationals in America—has worked with internationals now for more than four years. “International students want to see what American life is like in a home, with a family, in American culture,” she says. Many foreign cultures center around hospitality, and American culture doesn’t always do that so well. “The warmth of interacting with someone in their own home is more intimate than meeting at Starbucks for coffee,” Kate says.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are specific times that create curiosity in the minds of internationals. Imagine living in a foreign country where everyone was celebrating. Wouldn’t you want to know why? Although international students will not always express this, many would like the opportunity to experience our holidays. Not only is this a simple way for you to meet international friends, but you can bring the message of Christ to them in a natural, genuine way during the holidays.

The first thing you can do is find international students in your area. Begin by contacting your local college or university and speaking with the multilingual studies department. The majority of universities have host programs set up for families and individuals to befriend international students.

Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to invite international students to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It gives you a platform to explain history and give thanks to God. Some suggest telling the story of Squanto, who was a friend to the Pilgrims in a new land. You can use Squanto as an example of how learning from each other is important and educational.

If you are unable to host a student in your home, there are other options to be involved with international students. Bridges International staff members suggest a partnership with a local church, especially if you want to host a larger event like a holiday-themed meal.

In North Carolina, a church hosted a Thanksgiving meal at their church, supplying table hosts from families in the congregation. The hosts served the students, demonstrated turkey carving and then had the international students act out a Thanksgiving play to end the evening. Everyone saw new faces and made new friends, and the students learned about the meaning behind the tradition of Thanksgiving.

For any event, you want to personally invite the student. With technology rapidly changing, what used to be formal written letters are morphing into digital text messages and Facebook messages. Consider the best way to correspond with your new international friend. Cell phone, email and Facebook invitations are the most common way to communicate, as students tap into these mediums most every hour of the day. Remember, the phone is not always a first choice because many students are not confident in their English speaking yet. Texting, however, has become the most popular among the younger crowd.

Christmas is particularly fun because you have tree decorating, manger scene set-up and other various traditions. A meal, followed by some sort of game, and finally an explanation of the true meaning of Christmas, is an uncomplicated program. Decorating a Christmas tree and giving small gifts can round out your time together. Consider surprising your guest with a small gift, like home-baked goods or an ornament to unwrap.

Campus Crusade staff couple Hugh and Julie Jones hosted a Christmas tree decorating party at their home near Chapel Hill, N.C. Five international students attended and were able to join the Joneses as they gathered with friends and talked about the traditions of the Christmas tree. “Not only were we building relationships,” says Hugh, “but we were able to tell the students about hope in Christ.”

The students were interested in the many tree ornaments, including the angel on top, and asked questions about the significance of each one, which Hugh and Julie explained. “We were able to share stories and memories,” says Hugh. Then over Christmas desserts and hot apple cider, the Joneses heard the students’ stories.

An important thing to remember is that the person you are inviting is not so different from you, except that she is accustomed to completely different cultural norms and habits. Try and relate to her, remembering she is probably nervous and shy about speaking English, especially if she is still learning.

Don’t push your faith on her and don’t corner her about any topic. Do affirm her and ask questions. Ask if you can tell the story of how you came to the place you are in life because of Jesus.

Also remember that some students may have special dietary preferences. Ask if a vegetarian option or a different choice in meat would be preferred.

Don’t fret. If you don’t find time this crazy season, you can befriend an international student any time of year. There are many opportunities to create friendships and explore fun activities. Be sure and invite friends, neighbors and family to join you in meeting internationals. You never know, you might be the one who leads them to Jesus.

Action Point:

Inviting international university students into your home might be the highlight of their year abroad. Follow the steps in the article to demonstrate hospitality to a student and show them the love of Christ this season.