Christian post-secondary institutions in particular are called to reach out, writes Dannie Brown of Crandall University.
If there is one thing I’ve learned teaching international students over the years, it’s that relationship is a huge contributor to their success in their studies. It can also have a major impact on whether or not they decide to stay in Canada – or invite peers to come study here.
The proportion of international students today is much higher than it ever used to be, partly due to international recruiting. About a quarter of international students in Canada come from China and another quarter from India.
On a recent trip to India, I discovered both the United States and the United Kingdom have fallen out of favour as study destinations – the U.S. because of Donald Trump’s paranoia and the U.K. because of Brexit – and that Canada has become a destination of choice.
This is a huge boon for Canada’s educational institutions, because our country’s birth rate is declining even with generous immigration policies. Many institutions have quickly adopted policies of international recruitment to slow the academic cuts caused by our dropping birth rate. One school grew from 3,200 students to 4,500 in just one year from international students alone, most being from India.
Christian institutions are not immune from these challenging demographics. We too have struggled to maintain programs and retain staff amid declining enrolments from the domestic market. Church congregations are smaller and the number of youth in those churches is also smaller, contributing to a smaller pool of students for university from which to draw.
Here at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B., I was recruited from a public university as the new dean of a new School of International Academic Programs, aimed at serving students from countries around the world. In its first year of implementation, Crandall increased its percentage of international students from less than one per cent to five per cent in 2018 and 11.7 percent in 2019, with plans for incremental increases over the next several years.
This strategy is not without its growing pains. Traditional Christian colleges and universities in Canada have a very specific target market – Christian young people, specifically Evangelicals.
Most also have a tiny segment of non-believers enrolled, whose reason to attend is often about a convenient location and an ability to plug their noses, as it were, at the religious aspect in order to get a desired degree.
However, current international recruitment strategies are not for Christians exclusively, but rather for any and all peoples of the world. Admittedly this changes the community of the traditional Christian university classroom, and some see it as a threat. Instead I suggest the traditionally held Christian ethos needs to be redefined to a more inclusive biblical approach.
The Jesus of the Gospels didn’t seek primarily to reach the religious establishment of the day, He sought everyday people and especially social outcasts, in keeping with the many Scriptures that admonish God’s people to embrace those who are different from us, sometimes referred to as “strangers” and “foreigners” (Exodus 22:21; Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19; Matthew 25:35; Hebrews 13:2; 3 John 1:5-8). Our call to show hospitality can include people from around the world – and Christian schools can show it in particular to international students.
Yet international students have often told me Canadian students don’t seem to want to make friends with them. Oh, Canadians are friendly, but the relationships don’t venture much beyond pleasantries as they pass in the halls. Is that perception or reality? Is it cultural exclusivity that is keeping each student from approaching the other, and is it any more the fault of one than the other?
What keeps us from reaching out?
Each may be afraid of saying the wrong thing, making the wrong assumption, offending unintentionally. Neither may be comfortable with the other’s mother tongue and may see that as a hurdle. Unfortunately, the result is clusters of like-minded international students forming their cliques of comfort. It’s safer to stay among their own. Even other international students from different cultures are usually more comfortable than Canadians.
Scripture calls us to take the initiative to reach out (Mark 16:15), share the good news (Romans 10:14) and show hospitality (Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:35-37). This can be extended to all students who come our way, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack of one). Then we let our lives and the Holy Spirit do the rest.
It doesn’t mean our institutions ignore the integration of faith and learning. It doesn’t mean students are no longer required to learn about Christianity and the Bible. It doesn’t mean we stop requiring students to participate in some form of chapel. What it may mean is taking a broader look at what “Christian” means and how it may be applied in this emerging context of international students.
I’ve found taking action is much easier than we think. Relationship is simply getting to know someone, which means you must spend time with them. I’ve promoted this message to students in many different contexts. Remember, it’s the international student who is the stranger among us. We have a larger duty to make them feel at home and at ease. Invite them to a movie. Invite them to eat with you at lunch. Invite them to sit with you in class. Invite them to church. They might just say yes! Holidays also present a perfect opportunity to invite an international student into your home. They love to visit Canadian homes, which are often very different from their own.
Tips for Christian universities
Not all international students will live in residence, which can make it harder to build stronger relationships. But any institution that has international students in its residences needs to make sure they are not segregated simply because they are international. By segregating we’re saying, “You don’t belong.” Crandall has appointed a resident assistant for international students to meet the specific needs of international students – loneliness, in particular.
The responsibility for building relationships does not lie only with domestic students. Everyone at a postsecondary institution must play a part – faculty, staff and students. Presidents and vice-presidents can help simply by being present at events where students would be found. Other staff can assist simply by acknowledging the presence of international students and calling them by name. Our name is the most precious identifier of who we are. It is crucial that we learn the names of our students.
Professors have a greater role to play also. They are persons of position and power for international students, who often project the role of parent on them. I still have former students refer to me as their Canadian father. This allows professors to interact with international students on a level that might not otherwise exist (without compromising the professionalism needed in professor-student relationships).
Professors should also try to learn basic cross-cultural nuances. For example, students from China never speak in class unless spoken to, so when professors in Canada throw out a question they would be wrong to expect a student from China to respond. If, on the other hand, professors ask a specific student to answer a question, a response will be offered willingly.
Some cultures also place more emphasis on the family name (surname) than they do the first name (Christian name). Some cultures would never call a student by just their first or last name either, for fear of appearing to show favouritism over another student.
The task of welcoming the strangers among us is not an easy task. We will not get it right every time, but that should not stop us from trying and trying again. We can be Christians and welcome international students onto our campuses by living our faith for all to see, and further fulfil the gospel of Christ. Will you?
Dannie Brown is dean of international academic programs at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B., and associate professor for its International Bachelor of Commerce.