New Flavors on Your Local College Campus | Practical Mobilization

spiceNew Flavors on Your Local College Campus

By Shane Bennett

In the US, where I live, as the first crisp mornings of autumn begin to dawn, so does the increasingly pervasive presence of pumpkin spice. I’m no historian, but I think this started with pumpkin pie, a yummy dessert that previously only showed its tasty face at Thanksgiving. Now pretty much anything that can be sold will come in a pumpkin-spice option between September and Christmas.

Autumn also brings spice of a different sort. International students from all over the planet bring flavor to our nation’s campuses. What a gift they are! A chance to connect with people from places we’ll never go. The opportunity to learn about cultures from insiders. Sometimes, deep conversations with people who have never met someone who loves Jesus.

Intrigued about reaching out to international students, but feel you have nothing to contribute? Consider this: You live somewhere, right? You speak the local language, right? You know where to get decent food for relatively cheap, right?

Those are the raw materials. Add some curiosity, compassion, and the most precious of all resources, time, and you’re ready to go.

Where to Look

It’s not like hunting mushrooms or good deals at the mall, but let’s face it: international students are probably not going to simply show up unbidden at your door. If they’ve come thousands of miles to our towns, though, a couple phone calls and a 20-minute car drive are probably not too much to ask of us.

Here are three ways to start:

1. International Students Incorporated.

Go to to see if they have staff at a nearby school. These guys are great and may have set up connecting events you can attend. They may also be able to introduce you to people who’ve befriended students for years and are happy to welcome newbies to the work.

2. Christian student groups.

Check out campus fellowships like Cru and InterVarsity as well as churches near campus to see if they have connecting points.

3. Not-so-Christian groups.

Do what my friend Grace did. Show up at events sponsored by a school’s Muslim Student Association. This is gutsy, but odds are pretty good you’ll meet some Muslim students.

What to Do

1. Food.

Some time ago, a school near us had a focus on recruiting students from Turkey. We connected with a couple of them and invited them over for dinner. Mulling over the menu, we settled on Turkish food. On the one hand, who does this? Makes someone their own kind of food? It will never be as good as their mom’s version! On the other hand, they hadn’t had it for several months. Maybe anything that comes close would be nice. Not a morsel remained at the end of the meal!

Feeding people is such a broad avenue to their hearts. Any kind of food. A little time on Google will help you avoid what isn’t kosher in their culture. You can do this. And if you can’t, Appleby’s or Cracker Barrel probably can!

2. Fun.

Because conversation may be awkward in the early stages, I like to have something fun to occupy the initial weird spaces. Pick an activity you do not excel at (and for me that list is long). Miniature golf and bowling are two that provide little windows for conversation and ample opportunities for people to laugh at me. A visit to nearby natural beauty spots can work as well.

3. Photos.

“Can you show me pictures of where you live?” demonstrates your curiosity and care. Showing true interest in someone’s life is an amazing way to bless them. Start with questions that are easy to answer, and if you have the time and common language, aim for deeper topics. You probably know this, but asking questions that can’t be answered with yes, no, or a list will elicit longer and more narrative answers. We want to hear their story and share ours.

What to Watch Out for

1. Messiness.

Whenever people from different cultures try to interact, there’s bound to be misunderstanding. And not just language. We approach some of the basic aspects of life differently: time, money, relationships, and more. Below the surface stuff gets crazy. This is all complicated by the varying status roles of student and host and by the fact that each person is trying to adjust to the other while the other is trying to adjust to them. (Maybe it’s better to just stay home and watch TV?)

2. Busyness.

If you initiate a relationship with an international student, be prepared for them to be very busy. This might be because they’re crazy smart, pursuing two master’s degrees simultaneously, and carrying the weight of their family’s hopes and dreams in their book bag.

On the other hand, they might not yet believe you really want them to hang out and busyness is the safest excuse. In many cultures normal people refuse the first one or two invitations out of politeness and accepted protocol.

Don’t give up too soon. This is a bit of a dance and varies according to at least eighteen invisible factors. Our only hope is practice and the Holy Spirit.

But let’s say you’ve met a friend and set a time for them to come to your house. You’re golden—right up until you’re not. You still need to watch out for a few more things:

3. No shows.

Maybe your friend panicked. Maybe they told you “no” in ways that for all the world sounded like “yes” to you. Maybe they just forgot. Say a prayer, eat the food, lick your wounds, and try again.

4. Bonus shows.

Your wife sends you to pick up your two international student friends for dinner at your house. You arrive to see five—no, six—guys standing at the curb! You brought the Suburban, so you’re good to go. Discreetly text your wife and ask her to super-size the rice!

5. Picky eaters.

You know the rules, right? Eat what’s set before you. That’s what sharp cross-cultural people do. We can’t really enforce that in the other direction. Sometimes there are doubts, concerns, and issues that can’t be spoken which will cause people not to eat your food. And though this is hard to believe, maybe pumpkin spice just doesn’t work for them!


If all this sounds like kindergarten to you, great! Could I encourage you to advocate for international student outreach at your church, with your home group or Bible study? We’ve been given a rare and wonderful gift. We have a chance to act like Jesus and provide acceptance, care, and grace to people who are outsiders in our midst. Let’s not miss it.

Subversive Mobilization: A Sneak Peek at October

Jeannie Marie, a friend and colleague, has written a wonderful and winsome book called Across the Street and Around the World. Next month I’ll interview Jeannie and invite you to get your hands on this great new resource.

Before its official launch on October 2, however, you can pre-order the book, get some cool bonus material, and begin to scheme with me about how we might use it.

Jeannie’s the real deal. And if you’ve chosen to read more than one Missions Catalyst article, you’re probably going to love this book.

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