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EveryInternational provides FREE video training to help you befriend and share your faith with international students and immigrants.

Working with the University

Hi! My name is Estera Pirosca Escobar and I like building bridges! No, I’m not a civic engineer… I’m the National Field Director for International Friendships Inc. and a former international student from Romania. Because of experiences I’ve had over the years I enjoy building bridges between university offices and Christians like you who want to show love and hospitality to international students.

If you’re starting an outreach to international students on a nearby college campus you’re probably wondering … “How can I open doors for my ministry with the internationals on campus?” …and “What potential landmines do I need to watch for in dealing with the University? … and maybe the biggest question of all … “How do I meet some international students?” If so, I can help…

I’ll start with a story. I was attending a workshop at a secular conference in Indianapolis a few years ago and the topic was: Benefits and challenges of working with FBOs, faith-based community organizations. The atmosphere in the room was quite tense as various international student services staff were sharing pretty negative experiences they have had in interacting with Christian community volunteers. We had a time of sharing in small groups at the end and something amazing happened…In a few minutes I’ll share the rest of the story so let’s keep going.

In this video I’ll provide practical answers to questions you might have and reveal 3 proven practices that open doors in the university culture and build powerful connections with international students on campus.

Practice #1 Build trust and be a genuine blessing

Instead of treating university staff as just a means to an end, treat them as people you care about and want to be friends and partners with. Remember part of the administration’s job is to protect the school and its students from outsiders trying to “use” or “target” them for purposes contrary to their goals.

Start with Their Strategic Goals In-Mind. Most institutions of higher education have a set of strategic goals that include the word “Internationalization.” It encompasses things like encouraging study in other countries, partnerships with universities abroad, and hosting as many international students on their campuses as possible.

Although there may be several offices involved in advancing internationalization, there is usually one that has primary responsibility for international students. They have different names, for instance, the Office of International Affairs; the Office for International Students and Scholars.

How can you find out the name of the office? Since most universities are actively trying to attract more international students, when you Google the university’s name together with “international students” the name of the office at your school will be among the first to pop up.

Another goal the university might have is engagement with the community. If the campus has an International Friendship Program or an English Conversation program, you may also offer to recruit community people to be that friend to an international student. Enthusiastically meeting such needs creates a great opportunity to establish a community connection and helps the university staff look good as well!

As an example, Rod and Kim are IFI staff in East Lansing, Michigan and they reach out to international students from Michigan State University. From the first days of starting their ministry, Rod and Kim took the time to understand the MSU culture, to meet staff from the Office of International Students and Scholars, and familiarize themselves with offices that serve international students on campus. As a result, Kim found out about volunteering opportunities for community members through the office for the International Friendship Program.

The staff at MSU got to know Kim a little bit and she was open about her faith. She addressed their concerns right away, letting them know her goal is not to proselytize. She is not interested to push her faith on anyone. Although the staff were cautious because of negative past experiences with faith-based volunteers, they were thankful to have Kim as a volunteer in their program serving the international students. That’s how Kim got to meet students, make friends and establish credibility with MSU at the same time.

Another way to build trust and be a genuine blessing is to learn some insider language. Here’s some campus “insider buzz words” you might want to familiarize yourself with and even use when the opportunity seems ripe:

  • Integration and engagement, which is defined as helping students blend in with the campus community, the larger community, and the US culture in general.
  • Student Success, which is defined by desirable outcomes for successful students. One such outcome is “Belongingness.” The university wants international students to feel like they belong on campus and in the community.
  • NAFSA-Association of International Educators – a large nonprofit organization dedicated to international education and exchange. Some of our IFI staff including myself are members of this organization. Most staff from universities are members and attend local, regional, and national conferences. This organization sets standards of conduct for interactions with community members. Look online for the NAFSA statement of ethical principles and read them. When you meet with international student services staff I encourage you to mention that you are familiar with NAFSA and their statement of ethical principles.

Practice #2: Become a resource

Though most universities are aware of the needs of international students, they’re too understaffed to meet them all. So one of your most important missions is to show the people in charge what a great help you can be.

You bring a lot to the table:

  • You can help them with practical needs such as …
    • Picking up students at the airport
    • Helping them move into dorms or apartments
    • Offering them short-term housing if they arrive early
    • Providing Holiday homestay options
  • You can provide a pool of Community volunteers to meet the students’ needs for friendship, a sense of belonging, and family by:
    • Welcoming and making personal, caring connections with students.
    • Showing them around the community and helping them feel at home.
      Doing all kinds of little things that reduce the sense of isolation many international students feel in coming to a strange new place.

For example, in my freshman year in Louisiana, my friend Tay and her husband Tom were my host family. I was taking a beginner swimming class, since I didn’t know how to swim. It was strange to be in the pool by myself, especially in the weekends. Although Tay lived 30 minutes away, she decided to come during weekends to swim with me, help me become a better swimmer, and make me feel more comfortable. I was grateful for her presence and support.

  • You can also provide lots of different activities that support and enhance students’ educational experience, like field trips around the area, state, or different parts of the country.
  • Not to mention all the local opportunities and experiences that you can provide for engaging with different cultural and religious worldviews, with other internationals and Americans and discussing your and their values and beliefs!

Even with all of the benefits you can provide, and your best efforts at building a good relationship between your ministry, and the University … Things can become strained. That leads us to …

Practice #3: Be Positive in The Face of Challenges

Here are few of the challenges you might face:

  • Some of the more “politically correct” universities are coming down strong on religious groups and evangelical Christian groups in particular. Some university staff members have had bad experiences with pushy or obnoxious Church people and believe it is the university’s job to protect students from all Christians as a result. Others see international student ministries as somehow competing with their own university programs.
  • The fact that some campus international student ministry leaders aren’t very transparent, or have significantly hidden agendas, or aren’t honest about what they do and how they do it, doesn’t help. They might have a skewed view of friendship that treats students as “projects,” which leads them to drop the relationship when students don’t respond in the way they would like.

For example, at our IFI ministry in Columbus, Ohio we do not have a very good relationship with the Office of International Affairs at The Ohio State University. About 15 years ago a student had a bad experience with an IFI volunteer who was too pushy in sharing his faith and the student shared that experience with a staff from the office. This one experience has marked the relationship until today. Unfortunately, although both IFI staff and student leaders have tried to rebuild burned bridges, it’s still a work in progress. By God’s grace, the ministry has good relations with other offices on campus, such as Office of Student Life or other academic offices that serve international students in their programs. So, we still have an open door with some university offices.

Though negative perceptions and missteps do burn bridges, God has a way of turning things around to work for good and even to create positive partnerships from the ashes. Here are some ways to be positive and to increase your ministry’s chances of having a good relationship with the university:

  • Focus on values that your ministry and the university share such as: Concern for the safety and well-being of the students; Seeing internationals as “whole” people with physical, social, and emotional needs; High integrity and concern for the university’s reputation.
  • Keep the value you, a community volunteer, can bring to the table front and center. And utilize the insider buzz words I gave you earlier.

Remember the story I told you in the beginning? I was attending a conference workshop where the topic was Benefits and challenges of working with faith-based organization. The international student services staff were sharing negative experiences they had with Christian volunteers. We split into small groups and here I was, a representative of a faith-based organization. It was a little awkward as you can imagine. But as soon as I started sharing about our ministry’s vetting process for volunteers (application, three references, background check, have to agree to NAFSA ethical guidelines, cross-cultural training) the staff from various universities were so pleasantly surprised and wanted to learn more about our organization and if we have a presence in their community!

So, now you know how to build trust and be a genuine blessing to the international student services staff, how to become a resource, and how to be positive in the face of challenges. I think you’re ready to start understanding your university culture, establish a trust relationship on campus, and start meeting international students! So here are a few steps you can implement right away:

1. Familiarize yourself with the university website specifically looking for:

  • The office that provides services to international students. See the office’s mission and goals and look for common goals
  • Names and contact info for staff from this office. Are there any believers in the office?
  • Types of services and programs provided for students and see if there are any volunteering opportunities
  • Ethnic student organizations, with names and contact info that you can follow up with later
  • Christian student organizations that have a focus on reaching out to internationals, with names and contact info

2. Contact a staff member at the university International student office and set up a meeting. Either offer to take them out for lunch or visit them at their office at a time that is convenient for them. If there are other international student ministries on campus, you might ask who their contact is in the office, and even if they might introduce you to the right person. Then …

  • Prepare in advance what you will share, but also come as a learner, with a humble attitude, ready to discuss ways you might serve the university staff and international students.

And finally don’t forget to Pray!

Working With the University


International students rely on international student offices to navigate life in their new cities. Esterra offers important and practical tips on how you can build a trusting relationship with your local university, which will enable you to love and serve the nations at your doorstep.

International students rely on international student offices to navigate life in their new cities. Esterra offers important and practical tips on how you can build a trusting relationship with your local university, which will enable you to love and serve the nations at your doorstep.