How Do You Make Retreats Internationally Friendly?

It's fall! Time for pumpkin-flavored everything, changing leaves, and, of course, fall retreats. Sadly, few international students attend non-international specific retreats. When 50% of the international students in InterVarsity are in non-ISM chapters, and international students make up over 10% of InterVarsity students as a whole, this is a troubling trend. Spiritual growth and tighter communities often develop of out of retreat weekends. How can we keep internationals from missing out?

What do students say?

Generally, international students spend their free time studying. This isn't only because they want to do well in school for themselves, but also because their performance in school reflects upon their family. Since grades are a high value, they are less likely to take time off for a retreat. Chemistry homework or the letter to the Romans? Homework has a visible and family-approved payoff.

Then, if they do decide to take the time off, they generally don't want to spend the weekend doing manuscript Bible study.

Many international students are paying for school out of their own funds - money is less of an issue than it may be to US students. In this case, these students are less likely to stay in a camp with bugs, camp food, and no interesting sights, instead of taking a trip with friends to stay in a hotel, eat out at restaurants, and see NYC. There is social prestige involved in visiting famous US landmarks, while very few friends will be interested in hearing about your special experience with the outhouse

Some simply aren't interested, and have a mentality of "you've been to one, you've been to them all" towards retreats.

If you as a staff worker hope to see internationals attend your retreat, you need communicate vision to your students. Why should they set aside time? What makes it a better experience than the city?

Is the environment causing problems?

International students are excited to meet Americans, and many may be persuaded to come to a retreat with the promise of community. But if no Americans reach out to welcome them, they will feel out of place and not willing to come back (or tell their friends to come). You will be missing out on a great opportunity to extend God's welcome to others.

In addition to the potential non-welcoming environment, many internationals can feel out of place at a chapter retreat. According to the 2015-16 field report, just under 50% of internationals involved in IV were graduate students. Graduate students can feel out of place on these types of retreats, and visiting scholars will feel even more awkward. Some international students even come to school with wives and children. It is harder for them to leave for a weekend, let alone a week of chapter camp, without provision for their family.

Also consider the culture that permeates all parts of the weekend, from the speaker to the music to the tracks. Internationals may feel more comfortable singing about God rather than to God, for example. Speakers may assume everyone has at least a background of Christian culture, and may make references that international students don't understand. The same applies to a seekers track - while other non-Christians at the retreat probably have a familiarity of the Bible, internationals are starting from scratch. They also may be hesitant about conveying their lack of knowledge to others. If American terms or ideas are used, internationals may spend the weekend confused and frustrated.

How do you resolve it?

Publicize early so that students (especially those needing to work around grad or family schedules) can set aside the weekend from the beginning. Be sure students know what they'll be coming to - whether it be a weekend camping at a park or hours spent in tracks. In addition, plan an activity that could get internationals excited to come such as hayrack rides and bonfires or a local attraction. (One chapter takes their students to Mammoth Cave during the weekend.) Make sure students know there will be events they are interested in.

Prepare a place for any graduate students and families in your fellowship. This could be something as simple as having breakout sessions for them to process together and housing them in the same rooms to something as elaborate as separate tracks for them.

Find ways to lessen students' confusion and maximize their involvement. Brief speakers, worship leaders, and track leaders beforehand, making sure they know not all the students at the retreat will have the same knowledge base as US Christians. You could also pair internationals with Americans who can explain confusing terms to them.

Get your American students on board. Make sure they are aware of international students and ready to invite them in. Encourage free times and meals to be places of fellowship and community. The best things happen without being planned, so you could even allow a little leeway in time!

Obligatory disclaimer:

Of course, not everyone falls into these categories. These are just some ideas for why some students might not come. Others may have different reasons, and there are students who do enjoy coming! Many internationals will also readily attend an international-specific retreat, so search around to see what ones are offered near you. Whatever the make up of your chapter, hopefully these points offer food for thought!

See ISM Conference Models for more tips, ideas, and advice on international-friendly retreats.

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