Uncertain and anxious: pray for international student ministry
Study in Australia seems so promising, however it has become overly complicated for international students like Garris Yeung. The pandemic has added an extra layer of stress to the challenges of living abroad and completing a degree in a foreign language.
Mr Yeung is in his second year of electrical engineering studies at the University of NSW and can no longer attend the labs and practical components of his course. All his on-campus activities have moved online, including the Bible study and church service he attends as part of Campus Bible Study (CBS).
Vulnerable and isolated
The international student ministries at our universities are also feeling the impact of the pandemic and travel restrictions. Many of the students they care for have lost work and feel vulnerable, and there are many new students they have been unable to connect with at all. While many students have friends and family they can speak to online, travel restrictions mean their support networks feel further away.
“The people from church have looked after me quite well,” says Mr Yeung, who attends the Friday evening Cantonese service run by CBS’s FOCUS ministries. FOCUS stands for Fellowship of Overseas Christian University Students – a common name for international student ministry at many universities.
“You know you are not alone and there is always someone there to support you…”
Mr Yeung says his friends at the FOCUS service “are there when I want to talk, and maybe if I need help moving stuff or doing things. They’ve been a very friendly environment for me, so that really keeps me going. You know you are not alone and there is always someone there to support you.”
Although some activities are restarting slowly, such as Bible reading pairs, the CBS FOCUS ministry is feeling the loss of physical gatherings. Alison Napier, who works with the FOCUS team, says, “There are no biscuits after church; we [used to] have a full meal. Now we don’t eat together or go to restaurants in large groups. We are still meeting online, and we’ve created a community for those who are studying here.”
Currently the team at CBS FOCUS are praying for wisdom when it comes to physical meetings with some students, and supporting others stuck in their home countries, unable to return for study. “I feel like we’re investing more in our upper years because we don’t have first years,” Miss Napier says. “We need creativity and flexibility to keep making decisions month after month.”
“We are trying to create communities of care amongst the students in what’s been a very challenging time…”
The team at Evangelical Union (EU) at Sydney University has poured effort into supporting its international students. “Some who had casual work have lost that, so economically it’s been hard,” says Ben Lim, who works with the EU and has seen students struggle to pay for rent and food.
“It’s been good to see Christian communities giving assistance to provide for those students. We are trying to create communities of care amongst the students in what’s been a very challenging time. To switch to online learning and assessments, there are extra stresses that come with that [for students], while still studying at a graduate level in a foreign language.
“Then there are all of the issues that arise from being isolated, having to stay at home, and the impact that has on motivation. Many students are used to studying together and helping others, but when that’s not possible then it adds to the difficulty of studying. It is important for us to provide spaces where people can share and pray for one another, and support each other as we read the Bible together.”
Fewer opportunities to serve the global church
In any other year, the international student ministry is a booming network of students who are either Christian or curious about Christianity. This year both EU and CBS have seen a drop in new overseas students arriving and connecting with their groups.
Mr Lim believes there is a lot to lose if universities see fewer students enrolling from abroad. “If we can’t minister to foreign students, or we don’t have international students, we miss out on a great opportunity to enjoy the cultural diversity that God has created,” he says. “We miss out on a very enriching experience as Christians to learn from people from different cultures and see what following Jesus looks like from different perspectives.”
“That’s part of what this ministry is trying to do: see others built up in Christ, ready to serve wherever God needs them“
He says this also affects Christian communities abroad. “There’s also an opportunity that we would miss out on to help international students grow in Jesus and experience serving Jesus and others here [in Australia], so that wherever in God’s world they go, whether back home or somewhere else, they might take that training and serve the church around the world. That’s part of what this ministry is trying to do: see others built up in Christ, ready to serve wherever God needs them. I guess spiritually and globally speaking, there is a lot at stake. It would be great for God’s people to pray that he would keep this door open for a fruitful ministry.”
Uncertainty creates anxiety
It’s hard to predict what other changes could happen, or how university degrees will be affected in the long term. “Uncertainty is not a great place for anyone to be,” Miss Napier says. “Students don’t know when they are going back to classes, so the whole studying experience has been very strange. Education students haven’t done their ‘pracs’, so their time frame is thrown out. Some international students are wondering when they can come back into the country.
Those who are about to graduate are very stressed, because what’s the job market like? They’re not sure about work or staying here. There’s a lot of anxiety and so many questions about what the coming years will look like. It’s a good opportunity to realise God’s sovereignty. This is a real exercise in trusting God.”
“This is a real exercise in trusting God…”
Adds Mr Lim: “Pray that God would provide all that the students need. For some students, if they did travel home to see family or friends, they might not be able to return. Pray that we will be a community that loves these students and supports them in this time, and that this would be a real experience of God’s love.”
For Mr Yeung, although there have been enjoyable times during lockdown – with extra time to try new recipes, play video games and study – he has found the ongoing uncertainty very difficult.
“I feel like every student is coming across similar problems and having the misery of not knowing what you’re doing and getting confused and lost in this messy situation,” he says, adding that students need prayer for resilience and support amid the anxieties they’re feeling.
“Pray for students to stay focused on what they’re doing, whether they’re Christian or not. We’re operating in a fog. I don’t feel like I’m hanging in there, but you don’t know when you can stop. You go through uni and you have these challenges, but somehow the lockdown makes it even worse.”