In many cultures, the family unit is an essential institution. Even as other traditions and values become outdated, the family is still considered the most important part of life in many societies worldwide. In some cultures, it is common for children to grow up having a strong involvement with both immediate and extended family from a young age. Throughout their lives, they share important events and celebrations with their relatives.
As a result, many international students find that coming to study in the U.S. is more difficult than they imagined. On top of the challenges of making friends and completing strenuous coursework, students are also far from those who know them the best. This is one reason why International Friendships has a passion for extending hospitality to international students. By hosting international students, there is an opportunity to display God’s love and hospitality to them while they are away from home.
Although students are temporarily away from their loved ones, the members of their family remain a central part of their lives. As a result, it is important for volunteers to not only get to know their conversation partners, but to also build relationships with their families. As one IFI staff member put it, “Behind every student is a family.”
“Behind every student is a family.” –IFI staff member
Even the Bible attributes a high value to the household and family. In the New Testament, the concept of a household is expressed by the Greek word oikos. Although the English word “household” evokes images of nuclear families, oikos has a broader range of meaning. In addition to one’s nuclear family, the oikos also included neighbors, co-workers, friends, and others within an individual’s regular sphere of influence. In today’s context, it is important to remember that your conversation partner also comes from an oikos, even if it is abroad.
In light of this biblical emphasis and the essential value of family in many cultures worldwide, here are some ways you can start getting to know your conversation partner’s loved ones!
1. Ask your student about their family.
This is how it starts. As you get to know your conversation partner, it is important to also learn about their family. For many students, their family is an important part of who they are, and expressing genuine interest in them communicates care for what your student values.
As a volunteer, you have the opportunity to support your conversation partner as they navigate the stressors of living away from their close relatives. One way to do this is simply to ask about them! Ask about their loved ones’ personalities and their favorite family memories. Get to know your conversation partner’s family history and ask good questions. This will help you to connect meaningfully with your conversation partner as your friendship grows.
Oftentimes, you may not be able to meet your conversation partner’s family in person, but in this age, there are other ways. For instance, why not set up a video call?
One IFI staff member had the privilege of meeting his conversation partner’s mother and sister in this manner. This staff member recounts his experience initiating a video call with his friend’s family:
“I said [to my conversation partner], ‘I’d really like to send Thanksgiving greetings to your family on Thanksgiving Day!’ He said, “Oh, that would be so good!” So I said, ‘What time? You’ll be at my house at two or three o’ clock, what time is it in India?’ He said, “Like two in the morning, but my mom is so excited that she’s gonna stay up!”
With the offer so enthusiastically received, what followed was a great opportunity to build relationally with this friend’s family. As you befriend your conversation partner, they may tell their relatives about you. A video call is a wonderful way to help them assign a face to the stories their loved one narrates about you. Your intentionality with them can go a long way!
3. Write personal notes to your student’s family.
Never underestimate the power of a personal note to communicate thoughtfulness and warmth to the recipient. If necessary, have your conversation partner translate your writing. This is a gesture that parents and siblings may appreciate while their loved one is overseas, navigating the customs of a new culture. Especially if you take the time to handwrite your note, the sincerity of your effort will be apparent. In an age where few people take the time to write a thoughtful letter, your note will be a meaningful expression of friendship.
As a follow up to a video conversation with the family, jot down a quick message of gratitude to mail their way. Or next time your conversation partner visits home, send a letter with them. Holidays also provide a great opportunity to reach out with a friendly greeting.
4. Connect with the parents online (and share photos!)Ask for the WeChat of parents in order to share pictures.
Whether it’s WeChat, WhatsApp or something elseIf it’s not WeChat, find out the preferred communication method of your conversation partner’s family and use it to share fun pictures and videos of their loved one. Helping relatives remain connected to their student and his or her daily experiences while they are abroad can be a great way to establish connection. Even more importantly, sharing photos and videos will allow your student’s family to feel included in their loved one’s life and feel a part of their community in the US, however far away they may be in the meantime.
5. Host your student’s family if they visit.
Finally, if you have the space, host your student’s family the next time they visit! Your home will likely be more welcoming and comfortable than a hotel, and you will have the chance to make their trip fun and memorable. Offer to play tour guide, showcasing your city from a local’s perspective. Hosting will allow you to spend quality time with the family and form long-lasting memories with them. Opening up your home is a great way to form a genuine connection. And who knows, perhaps you will visit them one day as well!
Hospitality is at the core of IFI’s mission. The most immediate application of this value is with students that come to study in the U.S. However, we must never forget that every student comes from a network of familial relationships that continue to form who they are today. Therefore, as we extend hospitality to students, we must also remember to connect meaningfully with their families!
How will you extend hospitality to your conversation partner’s family?