Remember, you want your meetings to be ones that international students will want to return to! Pay attention to your atmosphere and timing.
While many US students will focus heavily on content without giving much thought to the surroundings, international students will often make judgments about the content based on surroundings. Because of this, it is essential to give thought to where you meet and what the location or decorations might say. It helps to have a relaxed atmosphere with food and drink.
The first step to a welcoming meeting is a personal invitation. Make sure you follow up any flyers or posters by personally reaching out to the students. Don’t hesitate to ask more than once – some students may come from a culture where persistence in the face of a “no” is just a way of showing you truly want them there. (Be sure to read their body language, though – if they seem annoyed by you asking, don’t push it!)
If you decide to have music at your event, choose songs that are both simple and applicable to international students. Have songs that they can join in on without feeling like they’re hiding or singing to fit in. For example, don’t sing “In Christ alone my hope is found” if your meeting is drawing many non-Christian internationals.
When students arrive to the meeting, make sure there is someone to greet them and engage them in conversation. It can be intimidating to enter a new community and large gathering without someone to be a lifeline! Either have the greeter become the student’s go-between or have them directly introduce the student to another who will be there for them for the evening. Don’t expect people to simply throw themselves into conversation with new people!
Introduce the plan for the evening. This helps people feel more relaxed as they don’t spend their time wondering what will come next or worrying about what they may have to do. Make introductions for everyone at the meeting, not just newcomers. Avoid singling anyone out as a guest or visitor. Instead, have each person share their name, where they’re from, and something personal (eg “Who is your favorite superhero?” or “What do you like for breakfast?”). Having an unusual personal question helps people laugh and feel more relaxed. Transition clearly between each event of the night. Building bridges informs the students of what is going on next and helps them to continue to be relaxed.
Give people time to talk to one another. Provide a place for friendships to grow. Make an effort to use people’s names in conversation; it makes them feel more at home. Regular members of the group should make a point of talking to the new international students and not creating an “us” and “them” situation.
Don’t run over the time you’ve set for the meeting! In time-oriented cultures, going over the set time can make someone feel uncomfortable or anxious. It’s always better to end earlier and have people desire to spend more time in the meeting than the other way around!
Ending on time also allows for space for conversations. Be clear that the official part of the meeting is over in case any students wish to leave. Informal conversation after the meeting is over is often one of the best times to get to know people and connect with them.
Therefore, an example of what a meeting might look like is this:
- Introducing one another, introducing the evening program
- Casual time for tea, food, and chatting
- The main program
- Personal conversations after the meeting finishes
There are many things you could do for your main program. A few suggestions are:
- Following a theme (such as holidays, games, family, etc)
- Centering around a country (letting an international student talk about their home, show pictures, teach a dance, prepare food, ect)
- Bible studies
Try to have some devotional or scriptural aspect to the evening. Work in a devotion with the theme or have a student offer some testimony. Remember, the meeting is not just a social gathering – it’s an opportunity to witness for Christ!