By Travis McCormick
Editor’s Note: This article is written in first person format based on the interview with the subject in an effort to better convey the perspective and impact of this person’s experience as an international student. The person’s name has been changed due to security concerns related to sharing this story.
Hello Arkansas Baptists, my name is *Alisa and I’m not from around here. My culture, customs and language are very different from yours. I am one of over 6,500 international students that come to this state each year to study and earn a degree. I represent the nations that God has called you to reach here at home. I am one who has been impacted by international student ministry and this is my story.
I am from South Asia. My family lived in Washington D.C. for three years while I was in high school. At the time, I had no idea what to expect other than what I had seen on television. The United States seemed to be the center of attention for the rest of the world as they were always on the news. It was a hub of technology and innovation. As a high school kid however, I just thought it was a really cool place with extremely fast internet speeds.
When it came time to apply for graduate school, I planned to go somewhere in the north or eastern part of the country. I honestly had no desire to come to Arkansas or anywhere else in the south. At first, I was disappointed when my dad worked it out for me to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. It made me sad because Arkansas was so far away from everything and so very different from what I had always known. I planned to be here for two years and then get out as quickly as I could. That was seven years ago.
I arrived at the University of Arkansas in 2012. Like many other international students, I really wanted to learn how to blend in and be accepted. One of my biggest fears was how people would react to my accent. Would they laugh or learn to accept it? I was amazed to discover how friendly and accepting everyone was.
I arrived with very little money and only the few things I could carry in my luggage. I was welcomed by others from the South Asian community and was able to live with them for free. My roommate and I had no furniture and no money to buy anything. We heard that the International Student Christian Association (ISCA) was hosting a free yard sale for international students, so we went and found a toaster, lamp and table. The couple who came to deliver our items saw that our apartment was bare and that we needed literally everything. To our surprise, they returned later with enough stuff to furnish our whole apartment. I didn’t realize at the time that they were Christians. I thought maybe this was something that people in this country just did.
Later that year, one of my international friends invited me to go on a Spring Break trip with the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM). He introduced me to Cole Penick, the leader of the BCM. Cole was taking a group of students to his hometown in Oklahoma. The cost was minimal because we would be staying in the homes of Christian families. I was bored in Fayetteville and he told me I could get out of town, make some new friends, and it would only cost $70. So, I decided to go.
One night we all went to the Penicks’ home where we were given a copy of the book “Voices of the Faithful.” It was then that I realized that these people were believers. This was the first time I had actually met with a group of Christians in this country to discuss their religion. During orientation, we were told that politics and religion were two topics that we should avoid. But after seeing the spirit of these Christians, I was eager to find out more about a deeper relationship with God. I wanted to know more about Him. Back home I had gone to a Christian school. I was familiar with the lingo and knew who God was. I believed in Jesus, but I also believed in the Hindu gods of my parents. I could not understand why Christians believed that the Bible is the only holy book and that Jesus is the only way.
We all attended church together that Sunday morning. I had never experienced anything like it. The church was really big, and everything about it was totally unfamiliar to me. I had never seen a worship band and didn’t know any of the music, except for one song that reminded me of a song we used to sing in my Christian school back home. It brought back memories. However, it stirred more than just feelings of nostalgia, it felt like God was calling to me.
When we returned to Fayetteville, I was invited to attend BCM Impact on a Thursday night. There was free food and I brought a friend along with me. This eventually became a regular thing for us and we made some really good friends. During this time, I ended up in a bad relationship and went through a really painful breakup. God surrounded me with people from the ISCA and BCM who really helped me through this rough time. God met me during this low time in my life. He showed me that I need to put my identity in Him and not in a relationship.
I began reading my Bible and asking God to talk to me. I read in Exodus where the people built a golden calf to worship. The imagery of a golden calf and people worshipping it impacted me deeply. Many people all over the world, including in my home country, worship idols like this as holy. The fact that God became so angry at them for worshipping anything other than Him really shook me. It made me realize that I needed to give up all the other gods I believed in and believe in Jesus exclusively. I told God that I was done fighting Him and that I would stop asking so many questions. This was my turning point and I gave my life to Jesus.
I started attending First Baptist Church in Fayetteville, where I met Josh Mauldin, one of the pastors at the church. He talked to me about baptism, but I put it off because I knew I needed to tell my parents first. I struggled with this decision for a while, but I finally told them. They did not like it. I felt as if I had let my parents down. I was at another difficult point in my life as I faced pushback from my family, and I began questioning what I really believed and whether or not it was worth it.
During this time, Josh told me about a new class they were starting that was geared for international students called Christianity for Beginners. The class offered an overview of the Bible and Christianity for those trying to figure it all out. I joined this class hoping to find answers. I found the freedom to ask questions, explore answers and work though my doubts amid all of the pressures from my family. The church provided a place for me to hear the truth and receive encouragement. They helped me to solidify who I was in Christ. I moved from not being sure I wanted to follow Jesus to being baptized in 2015. As difficult as it was to go against my parents’ wishes, I had counted the cost and made my decision even though I knew what it would mean for me.
I am currently serving as a volunteer at the church and working with international students as I finish up my PhD in engineering. It’s not easy as my relationship with my family is still strained, but I know that God has good plans for me. I am trusting Him to provide a fruitful ministry. He has given me a heart for reaching internationals which is why I want to work in the engineering field. Where I currently work, over 50% of the employees are internationals. This is the perfect opportunity to practice “tent making” and being “in the world but not of the world.” I know the nations will be represented anywhere I work in the field of engineering.
God brought me to Arkansas to reach me and to teach me how to reach others. As an international student who has experienced the impact of international student ministry, I want to leave you with some simple “do’s and don’ts” to consider as you reach the nations here at home.
*Don’t be judgmental about their culture and the way they live. Watch your body language and
*Don’t force a faith related discussion. Get to know each person and learn to gauge when they are open to these types of discussions.
*Do be hospitable. Open your home and invite them in. Cook a meal. Remember that many international students have never seen the inside of an American home.
*Do be genuine. Let them see the real you. The people who impacted me the most were the ones who were open and vulnerable.
*Do offer to help. Students need help, but don’t try to force help. Ask them what they need and don’t assume.
*Do invite them to events. International students like experiencing American life so invite them to come along with you. If you can, invite them to things that are free, or offer to pay their way. If you expect them to pay, be sure to tell them ahead of time.
*Do ask questions. Don’t just give answers, leave them thinking. Don’t assume they know and/or believe the truth. Ask if this were true, what do you think about it?
*Do be a good listener. Try to understand their perspective. Often, their decision process is a journey.
*Do build relationships. Get to know them as a person. Don’t see international students as a project but as a long-term investment. Show them that you care by your actions. Even if they never follow Jesus, let them know you will be their friend, no matter what. Remember, trust is a big thing.
*Do remember that you can’t save anyone. God has to meet each one of us personally. Our job is not to convert a person. Our job is to share God’s love and truth with them and leave it to God to do the rest. Not by our strength, but by His strength.