Have you experienced the joys of getting to know international students during their campus stay – and the sadness when they return to their home country? Yet do you struggle with long-distance communications, like many? The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shown the value of online communications. We caught up with experienced IFI staff and volunteers to get their recommendations on maintaining connections in meaningful ways. This article offers tips on how volunteers and students can remain connected despite the kilometers.

Before students leave for home

1. Express your interest in future chats with them! Your interactions with your friend before they leave for home will set the stage for your relationship when they return. Student schedules can be busy, especially in the weeks before their departure, but you can show them your continued interest in their lives and well-being.

A warm message that you want to stay in touch can begin a dialogue to plan for communication with students.

2. Make a general plan to stay in touch. Students may be better able to know their schedule after their return. Don’t be discouraged if students cannot commit to any particular date. Students may not want to disappoint you in case their expected plans change.

3. Ask students to recommend communication tools. Students may know what specific online methods work best in their home country to help you to connect. Given the varied options, it’s helpful to confer with students to determine which apps they recommend. Here are some options:

    • WhatsApp links you with other WhatsApp users and is popular for texting, calls, voice messages and sharing photos. WhatsApp works for both iPhone and Android and has a very simple interface, making it easy to use.
    • Messenger offers a newer chat service and may be more effective for group calls than WhatsApp. Both applications are free and although linked, do not require Facebook use.
    • Chinese internationals often prefer WeChat. WhatsApp, Messenger and Google applications are routinely inaccessible in China.
    • Zoom, Google Meet, and Hangouts are good options for group video calls and sharing screens. Zoom is considered to offer more user features but purchasing a license is required for calls exceeding 40 minutes. Google Meet, like Zoom, may require a licensed user to enable more features. Google Hangouts works well for smaller group calls.
    • Facetime works for Apple users. Google Duo, Google’s version of Facetime, is another simple video call app. Both limit group size and include no chat feature.
    • Skype works well for video calls with other Skype users.

In addition to online apps, email remains a good option for communicating important details. Email often works well for making inquiries not suited for a group call.

Remember that sending a handwritten card or letter remains a meaningful way to communicate and is fun for students to receive.

After students return home

1. Initiate the conversation. Once students return home, it’s a good idea to contact them soon after to let them know you are thinking of them. Let them get accustomed to their new routine and then set up a time to chat! Keep in mind those re-immersed in their home language may need to reacquaint themselves with conversational English.

Find a quiet space to converse and avoid distractions. Partial attention not only disrupts your listening but can become hurtful to the student.

If you should miss a student’s call, send an immediate message to express your regrets. Offer concrete times when you expect to be available that work with both time zones. (“Please call again when it’s convenient” may prove too general and you may continue to miss each other.)

2. Be patient through technology challenges. Pat Durst, a staff member of IFI Cincinnati who has been able to stay connected with returned students to China, advises that we be patient with the connection troubles that can happen with any application.

Delays, echoes, and interference can sometimes make online discussion difficult and trouble-shooting takes time, but Pat has found that perseverance pays off.

Technology challenges may result from low internet speed or bandwidth. Apps using video require sufficient internet capability to function properly so turning video off and using audio only may improve connection at times. Video usage also drains battery power more than voice-only calls, especially on phones. Bottom line: connection capability often affects which app features work best for you and students. Stay flexible on which app or features to use and adjust to fit the situation.

3. Get to know their family members. Family is important, particularly for people from non-western cultures. In calls with international students you can express your interest in their family. Students may even wish to introduce you to their family.

Chris and Wendy DeLong, IFI Fort Wayne, Indiana, felt privileged to receive this message from a student: “Hi Chris, I was just wondering, can I make a video call? I am still in India and I have mentioned you so much time that my mom and dad almost know you.” The student had returned home for a short visit over spring break and ended up staying when international travel shut down.

“His parents thanked us numerous times during the conversation for helping their son while he was in the U.S.,” Chris recalls.

The video conversation created a wonderful opportunity to connect with the student and his family.

4. Discuss the Bible with returned students. Online Bible studies can continue or begin afresh with interested students. Pat Durst and Melinda Hickman, another volunteer with IFI Cincinnati, keep in touch with two Chinese friends. Their regular study over WeChat seeks to strengthen these new followers of Jesus. The woman at the well story in John 4 proved impactful during a recent online study with the women.

“The women had great insights,” recalls Pat. They talked about being surprised by Jesus and one of the women shared her surprise that she met Jesus during her year in the U.S., and that, since returning to China, she has found that her family is not against her following Jesus.

Pat suggests that the group calls include a warm-up time with conversation in English for friends who have been home for some months.

Just a few minutes of general chatting allows her friend in China to “tune in” to English before their online Bible study.

She finds it helpful to repeat or rephrase key points during online conversations, sometimes more than was needed during in-person meetings.

Good topics for Bible studies include what God has been doing through the lives of believers and how to live as followers of Jesus (i.e., by obeying, overcoming temptation by using God’s Word, introducing others to Jesus, forgiving as Jesus forgave.) Two resources to use are the M28 Global Discipleship mobile app, available for download at https://www.m28global.org, and Reaching Internationals’ Discovery Bible Study.

5. Stay diligent and flexible in connecting. It helps to coordinate schedules even when just two or three persons are trying to connect regularly together. Sending a day-before reminder can be helpful until a meeting routine is established. Applications that link to online calendars allow for setting automatic notifications on upcoming meetings.

It is nearly impossible to do online Bible studies or maintain connections “on the fly,” cautions Julie Barker, an IFI volunteer in Columbus, Ohio. She found that “as soon as schedules changed and we didn’t form a new schedule, we lost momentum.”

Overcoming time differences and busy schedules, Julie has called students from her parked car while traveling because it was the only way for her to fit the video call into the day.

Julie says, “I prioritized our weekly scheduled meeting – even in the face of having to find Wifi.”

One time, while camping in the Hocking Hills, Julie and a friend traveled early one morning to McDonald’s, to keep a Discovery Bible Study despite the noise, with international students in China. The students’ questions honed in on the promise of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. They understood that to receive the Holy Spirit they needed to repent of their sins and believe. Both students took the opportunity to pray.

6. Know that students appreciate being remembered – even years later. Don’t hold back on making contact just because of time passing. Perhaps you are familiar with that sinking feeling (guilt or shame?) when realizing communications never happened as you had planned with a beloved student.

You can begin afresh… It’s not too late!

A great time to connect is over a holiday, such as Spring Festival for Chinese or Holi for Indian students, or in remembrance of a special time you had together, such as a Summer trip you took with that student. Students appreciate sincere inquiries into their current life circumstances and well-being.

Your friendship doesn’t have to end once international students return home. You may play an integral role in helping them adjust to their home again.

Staying in contact with them is a powerful way to show how the love of Christ reaches across time and space.