Sep 24, 2018


Building Credibility with the International Student and Scholar Office

Tom Knight provides some principle that will help you build credibility with the International Student and Scholar Office on your campus.

Building credibility with your local International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) is a huge benefit to the longevity of your international student ministry. International students face unique challenges and difficulties while in the US, and the ISSO knows it. The office is staffed by many people who genuinely care about students and want to help them have an easy transition while here. They may also be skeptical of religious groups trying to “target” students for conversion. In this situation we need to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” Here are some tips to help you be both wise and innocent.

Be transparent.

This is about being truthful upfront with students about events they are invited to. No one likes being tricked into something. I always try to see events in two categories: welcoming events and spiritual engagement events. There can be, and usually is overlap, but thinking about it in this way can help make planning and advertisement easier. For instance, if we invite students to a beginning of the year cookout, it is just that: a cookout for students to come and enjoy meeting other international students and American friends. It is not about handing out tracks about the Gospel or inviting a pastor to preach. On the other hand, we are very clear when we are doing a Bible study that it is a Bible study about what Christians believe. These can overlap (you can have free good at a Bible study, and you can have Gospel conversations at a cookout), but thinking about events as either one or the other helps to frame it for how it is advertised and implemented. Your local ISSO will appreciate your consistency and transparency.

Care for students.

We care for students, but if we have bad relationships with the ISSO we may be hindered from getting opportunities to show our care. One of the first things I started doing for students was a cookout over Labor Day. International students have no experience with this holiday. So, we decided to help them find something to do on this day. The director of the ISSO found out about our cookout and decided to “walk by” on the day of the cookout. What she saw were numerous students having a great time with other students and our ministry team. We were eating hot dogs and having fun. We were there to serve and care for students and it showed. After her “walk by” my experience with her began to improve. Eventually as we started other events such as a yard sale for students, the ISSO office even helped to promote the event. Another year when I helped to organize a meeting about crime happening against international students, the ISSO director came to the meeting which was held at a local church. Our ministry and the college both cared about students, and we were able to unite in wanting to protect students from being easy targets for crime.

Be Relational.

One of the most commonsense ways to have good relationships with the ISSO is to be relational with students and staff. No one wants to be manipulated or cajoled into action. I will never forget an encounter with a cult member who would just walk around campus and say the same preprogramed spiel to whoever was around. There was no interaction, no back and forth with questions. Just a monologue that never seemed to end. This approach would be a dead end with the ISSO. Instead, we need to have more give and take with students. We need to be listeners and learners so we can better speak the Gospel into the students’ cultures. Having a Gospel conversation at a cookout is going to go a lot farther when done in a relationship than just using a preprogramed speech. What is going to trickle back to the ISSO are stories of those who care about students and have good relationships with them. Building trust with students will also help build trust with the ISSO. You can’t force a relationship with a student or the staff at the ISSO, but being caring and transparent sure helps.

Train your students and volunteers.

It may seem strange to “train” your ministry team to be caring, transparent, and relational, but it is important. If you are partnering with another ministry it is a must. Most Christians don’t intend to hurt students or break rules, but many are so excited to be doing ministry that they may charge right onto the campus without thinking about or prioritizing a strategy that blesses the campus and builds bridges. To some it may even seem a “waste of time,” but in the end good training goes a long way to keeping you out of trouble and on the campus. Set aside times for training that helps volunteers see a big picture of what you are trying to do, and why good relations with the ISSO office is important.

about the author

Tom Knight

Tom is a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, specializing in international student work. He holds a law degree from Wake Forest and an Mdiv from Princeton. He is the author of No Passport Required: Collegiate Ministry as Global Missions.