Cultural Exchange: Invite an International College Student Home for Christmas

Imagine being a college student from India, China, or Uganda studying in America. Everything is strange and new. Then, the second week in December, there is a mass exodus from the campus. Your roommate, everyone in the dorm, and the professors are going home for a holiday called “Christmas.” At the mall, there are festive decorations, people scurrying to buy gifts, and children in line to see a fat man in a red suit, while chipmunks sing about hula hoops.

For the more than 723,000 international college students, the typical Christmas hype in America may be confusing and weird. Unfortunately they may never experience the true meaning of the season.

“Many international students never visit in an American home,” said Phyllis Hoover, coordinator for international student services at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. “For those who do so, they feel especially fortunate.”

This Christmas, make an international student’s season merry and bright. Invite him or her to come “home for the holidays.” Plan an afternoon or evening get-together:

  • Connect—If you know an American student, then ask him or her to connect you with an international student, or contact the college international program or the student affairs office. Or check out other resources like International Students Inc. and Internationals.org, a network of ministries to international students.
  • Research—Learn about the culture, food, and Christmas customs of the student’s home country. Consider a resource like The World Around Us, which spotlights 12 cultures.
  • Invite—Meet the student on campus to introduce yourself and deliver a written invitation including a phone number. Offer to pick him or her up at a designated place. Find out if there are foods that he or she cannot eat because of allergies or religious reasons.
  • Respect—If you plan to go to a religious service, then ask if that would be suitable and explain what will happen. “Always respect the different cultures and religions of the international student,” Hoover said. “Remember to treat them as you or your child would want to be treated.”
  • Share—Be curious and gracious. Ask about his or her family and homeland. Since the student may not have a Christian viewpoint, ask what holidays he or she celebrates. Introduce or share pictures of your family and talk about your family Christmas traditions. Or better yet, ask the student to join in trimming the tree, stuffing stockings, making ornaments, baking cookies, or wrapping presents. Explain the real reason for celebrating. Stuff a special stocking just for the student with candy, gum, popcorn, pens, sticky notes, nuts, gift cards, or whatever a college student could use.

Hoover said there could be challenges in befriending international students because of the cultural differences and their youth:

  • Language: “Many will say yes but have not understood you at all or will say yes to an invitation but have no intention of accepting.”
  • Time: “Many don’t plan ahead or they have a different understanding of punctuality.”
  • Commitment: “[They] may change their mind at the last minute if there is a ‘better’ offer.”

In a few years, that international student in your home may become a leader of his or her nation. God clearly tells us how we should treat him or her:

“You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34a HCSB).

Janice Backer is a freelance writer living in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

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