Understanding the Cross-cultural Experience of International Students

This post is written by JaNae Stynsberg. She works at local campuses through International Students, Inc. In this piece, she shares about an event she recently organized at Trinity City Church's building. 

I have had the privilege of engaging with international students at the University of St. Thomas for several years and recently became a full time staff member with International Students, Inc. TCC’s partnership has been a huge blessing in this work with numerous members helping with English Club, special events and developing individual relationships beyond that.

TCC recently gave us the opportunity to host a unique event designed to help youth experience cross-cultural understanding in a positive way. A couple youth pastors from small towns in southern MN and eastern Wisconsin wanted to expose their youth to diversity to help plant in them a heart for the nations. It took awhile to figure out how to introduce 40 American teenagers to international students in a non-awkward way, but we came up with the International Student Panel idea. International students from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India and Nigeria answered questions that the teens, pastors and myself had come up with ahead of time.  

The students shared that what they expected the US to be like, what surprised them, what they sacrificed to come here, how Americans can better welcome foreign peoples, and things that seemed strange/confusing/funny/hard to get used to about Americans.  They also shared if they ever felt targeted in a negative way because of their race or religion.  

The night’s discussion was great but several answers stood out. When it came to how to better welcome in foreign peoples, the discussion became focused on how believers have personally interacted with them. Something commonly reiterated was that they have really enjoyed being welcomed into churches and studying the Bible with people, but they also said they have experienced people not being open to listening to what they believe or making assumptions or criticisms about what they believe before even knowing anything about their religion. Another thing stated was a feeling that some Christians will only want to be friends with them if they are open to becoming Christians themselves. One of the guys said if someone wants to share about their faith with him, he prefers if they tell about how they have personally experienced God rather than just listing off verses or reading through different materials.

It’s safe to say that it was more than just the teens who gleaned wisdom from this panel discussion. I knew that would be the case because I often feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in my understanding of cultures and how to share the love of Christ with each individual. I’m happy to say each international student left the night feeling heard and validated in the answers they gave. The youth group students left with a new understanding of these cultures, what it’s like to be a foreigner here and also with new questions about how to engage in evangelism and missions.

Thanks again for the opportunity to do this event at TCC! It’s a beautiful thing for the local church to be one of the first agents to welcome in our friends from all over the world!