International students enjoy seeing America, especially with Americans! Would you like to take some internationals to your favorite places?
If you haven’t traveled with a group of international students before, you may wonder, “Where do I begin? How can I help people who don’t know me or each other want to be together?” Good questions! Developing a sense of community, belonging, is important, especially to students who’ve just arrived in the U.S.!
IFI has four goals for trips: 1) Go to interesting places together, 2) have fun doing it, 3) introduce students to the Bible and our God, and 4) build bridges of friendship that Jesus can cross.
1. Begin with prayer
As a Christian, you know that nothing “just happens”; the students with you are there by God’s design. God wants them to see something in Christians that’s different, intriguing. Start by asking God to use you to draw the group together and to Himself. Ask Him to open their eyes and heart. Ask Him to help you see where He’s working in the group. And keep praying! (Learn more about the effect of prayer during trips in point 9.)
2. Get ready with a survey
Before your trip, survey the students you have not met to learn whether they have been to an American’s home or to church. IFI staff member Phil Foell says he uses surveys to find out about students’ spiritual interests and experiences before each trip and a survey after the trip to learn what they liked best. After the recent IFI trip to Washington DC, the number one answer to what students liked most was “Time spent with the host families!”
3. Break the ice
Learning others’ names is a big step toward “us.” IFI staff member George Chow starts with icebreakers such as the “name game.” Students tell the group their name, what it means, and why they received that name, if they know. The meaning may reveal parents’ desires for their child and/or be a link to someone in the Bible, which can spark some good conversations! Another game George uses is “name toss.” Students toss a small ball or other unbreakable object to each other. Before they toss, they must call out the name of the person they want to catch it. George uses this game when the group is delayed or waiting for a missing member to return. It helps the group grow closer and uses wait time well.
4. Ask questions
Rebecca Sermon, who leads an IFI Wives’ Group in Columbus, Ohio, as well as an occasional trip, uses questions to get to know students and help them know each other. She may address the entire group or just a few students, asking what they’re studying, where they’ve traveled, and whether they’ve been to a similar place before. When students hesitate to respond, she answers her own question to get conversations started. Rebecca watches and prays for experiences such as going to church with their host family that can lead to spiritual conversations.
On a trip to Washington DC, Rebecca’s co-leader brought words for American folksongs on song sheets and the music on his cell phone. The group enjoyed singing the American songs so much that when they’d sung them all, they used their phones to find easy songs from their country for the group to sing together. One of Rebecca’s favorite songs for breaking the ice and bringing laughter is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Singing also can help students—especially new arrivals—get more comfortable with speaking English.
6. Jump the language barrier
Rebecca speaks slowly and deliberately. As she talks, Rebecca watches for body language that tells her who is having difficulty understanding: a look of confusion or struggle, head tilted to one side questioningly, leaning forward to catch words, frequent use of a translation app on their phone or electronic dictionary, or just plain silence. When she sees these signs, Rebecca stops and defines terms and expressions. “Be a student of your students,” Rebecca recommends. Speaking slowly and clearly always helps. So does humor.
To assure students that it’s safe to practice English with her and that she won’t laugh at their blunders, Rebecca tells them how she once tried to buy a kilo of flour at a grocery store in Russia. She astonished the grocer and the other customers by ordering a kilo of “torture” instead! The two words were identical but put the emphasis on different syllables! “I want them to feel at ease speaking to me, even if they make mistakes,” Rebecca says.
“Don’t give up on the quiet ones,” Rebecca encourages. On the way back to Columbus from Washington DC, she got her group to play “I’m thinking of _(an object)_,” in which players ask questions until they identify the object. One student had been very quiet the entire trip. Rebecca had given him many opportunities to join conversations, but he had remained silent. She was surprised and grateful that he joined the game! Then he started talking with the others in the van, asking questions to learn interesting things about each person. Long conversations followed, in which he talked to others about spiritual things. It turned out that he was already part of a Bible study. “God used my gentle persistence,” Rebecca smiles.
7. Expect good things from host families
Host families are key to the success of a trip. Staying with hosts makes time for one-on-one conversations about shared interests as well as displays of warmth and generosity of heart and home that can lead to spiritual conversations. Families at some popular destinations such as Washington DC, Atlanta, and Buffalo (Niagara Falls) have hosted many students and are experienced at relating to people from different cultures. When hosts are from the same church, they often plan welcome and/or farewell dinners together to initiate or continue group interaction with the students.
“Many hosts can tell stories of long, into-the-night conversations or games with their students that led to a softening of hearts toward God, a presentation of the gospel, or even to salvation,” says Russ Sermon, also on staff with IFI. “Students remember their host families for years,” Russ notes. “Hosts often make a greater impact than the trip’s other events or experiences, such as riding a jet boat.”
8. Apply grace and prayer to problems
Most IFI staff and trip volunteers can tell stories of difficult students such as those who want to visit local friends instead of touring with the group or do everything at their own pace, ignoring the group’s schedule. “When things seem out of your control,” Russ counsels, “admit it and take it to the One who is always in control. Ask Him for grace, patience, and cooperation. How you respond is key. Students are watching!”
9. Ask God to use hardships for good
IFI Columbus used to hire a sleeper bus for their Out West Trip to national parks in Utah, Arizona, and California. The last time they did, a wheel came off the westbound bus right in front of a motel west of Indianapolis! (There were no injuries, thank God.) When trip leaders learned that repairs would take several days, they rented rooms in the motel, which had a nice swimming pool, and asked the students if they wanted to continue the trip—shortened because of the loss of time–or return to Columbus and get a partial refund from IFI. They stayed at the motel for two nights then returned to Columbus. “That experience really brought the group together,” George Chow recalls.
George also remembers a camping trip that was cold and rainy. “Setting up tents in the rain and huddling under tarps around the campfire drew the students together,” George says. “Sharing hard times can do that!”
Jonathan with IFI Cleveland agrees. He took a group of Middle Eastern men for adventures in Virginia. “Each day I asked the Lord to open opportunities for meaningful (gospel) conversation; each day it seemed the doors to hearts and minds remained closed.” Near the end of the trip, one guy lept into the air during a Nerf gun battle and collided with a ceiling beam! Jonathan remembers the scene vividly: “He fell to the ground moaning and could not move his head, neck, or upper back. After a few minutes without improvement, I called 911. As we waited for the emergency squad, I prayed for him. Then a Christian student from India knelt beside him and prayed for him quietly for a full 40 minutes while we waited for the ambulance. Hours later, the injured student grabbed my hand as we went down the hospital corridor to his head scan. We thank God that he suffered only a minor concussion and was back up and functional within 24 hours.
“Once it became clear that there was no serious damage, he and I had a good laugh about the whole incident, and he shared how much it meant to him that we had prayed for him. ‘I felt the presence of God,’ he said. Other students also said later how impacted they had been seeing us pray for him. I was reminded how even the simplest expressions of our faith can make a significant statement. Although those students already… had a strong sense of God’s existence and his sovereignty, they barely had a category for his nearness, his presence, his love and care …that they felt it in that moment.”
10. Wrap it up with a photo party
A week or two after the trip, have a party for the group to share photos and recount stories from the trip. Students bring their photos and, often, food from their homeland. IFI staffer Fabiola Jara says that reconnecting during photo parties often increases students’ interest in going to a Bible study, especially if invited by someone who was on the trip. Many students who join an IFI Bible study and eventually receive Christ say that their interest in spiritual things began during an IFI trip.
Please pray! Ask God to use IFI trips to draw students to Himself this year!
Now that you’ve read this article, do you think you’d like to help with an IFI trip? Trip leaders can always use help in calling host families, planning food on the way if the trip is long, corresponding with students as they register, or checking in students as they arrive at the gathering point from which the trip leaves. On the trip, talking with the students, answering questions, driving, navigating, locating rest stops, or playing games with students are also ways to help.
To learn more or to get involved, contact someone with your local IFI chapter and ask about upcoming trips and how you can help. Or ask your small group to organize their own trip through IFI! You can find names and contact information for staff in each of IFI’s active locations on our Ministry Locations page.