The Typical Experience of an International Student

The central struggle of a typical international student can best be summarized in one word: “loneliness.” 

  • Separation from friends and family in the student’s home country.
  • Struggling to fit in with new acquaintances in America.
  • Experiencing a sense of isolation or rejection, since many never set foot in an American home.
  • Feeling added distress because of the contrast with their home cultures, many of which value family and relationships more highly than do Americans.

In his 1984 book, Two Years in the Melting Pot, Liu Zongren described his painful experience as a Chinese student in Chicago. The book may be old, but the experience is not dated.  Here are a few of his most powerful words:

I knew my misery came not only from missing my family, but also from the frustration of being unable to learn (in English). People in Beijing must be thinking I was enjoying myself here in the richest country in the world. Yet I was suffering, not because people in America were rejecting me, but because they didn’t understand me and didn’t seem to care how I feltand because I didn’t understand them, either. After my three classes each day, I wandered around the campus like a ghost.”

Think about the fact that your campus may be filled with international “ghosts.”  If that is the reality, consider some ways that you can reach out to internationals in friendship:

  • Play pick-up basketball or soccer with them.
  • Go out for pizza with them.
  • Play video games with them.
  • Take them to get needed essentials at a nearby store.
  • Help them get oriented to the campus and community.

Believe it or not, by giving time and assistance to an international student you’ll be fulfilling a command that was given to the children of Israel in Leviticus-When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.  The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native- born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.  I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

A friendly American face will immediately help with some of your friend’s relational struggles-but not all.  Some issues will take more time to overcome-for example, language.  Of course, most internationals come from nations where English is not their primary language.  Our tendency is to look down upon them as they struggle in English, yet we really should ask ourselves, “How good is my second language…or my third?”  Here are some ways that you can begin to overcome language tensions:

  • Offer encouragement.
  • Do some tutoring.
  • Learn a few common expressions in your friend’s mother tongue.

As for that last suggestion, you’ll probably mess up, but who cares? Your friend will feel better as he observes your difficulty with his language (“misery loves company”) and you’ll automatically be more respectful of his improving English.

And then there’s the battle of hard work and limited time.  Consider how hard you would have to study if you were hearing lectures and reading textbooks in a second language. And consider how hard you would work if B’s were unacceptable to your family back home or even to yourself.   Most internationals are the very best students of their home country; they got to universities in America because they’re intelligent and they work hard.  Most manage their time very carefully.

Although internationals are eager for your friendship, it is important for you to relate to them within the context of their busy schedules:

  • Many internationals come from informal cultures where friends just drop in, unannounced. If you do this, you’ll communicate warmth-but don’t stay for more than 10-15 minutes.
  • As you would do with your other friends, send quick messages to internationals through email, texting or Facebook.
  • Although your international friends may be reluctant to give lots of time for on-campus meetings or appointments, a road trip to an exciting place will merit an entire day or an entire weekend. Lots of fellowship and learning can happen in the car.
  • Many internationals will enjoy Bible study groups or fellowship meetings-unless they take too much time. Internationals count minutes like dieters count calories, so let your friends know the length of the meeting and stay to that amount.

It will take a little extra time and effort to learn to understand the international students around you, but the extra effort will be worthwhile.  Your ministry to them will be so much more effective, and your love for them will grow as you understand them more fully.