Imagine being at a university surrounded daily by thousands of people on campus, hundreds of people in classes, and dozens of people in your residence hall, and going for months without having anyone talk to you.
The scenario may sound like an exaggeration, but this kind of isolation is a reality for international students on university campuses across the country. And for staff members of Chi Alpha Campus Ministries at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, it’s an unacceptable reality.
“I’ve heard stories from international students where they sat in a room and felt like everyone ignored them or pretended they weren’t even there,” says Tressa Jamil, Chi Alpha international student ministry director on the campus.
With 11 years of Chi Alpha experience, Jamil, an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary associate, arrived at N.C. State over the summer with a heart already burdened for international students. She was pleased to learn of her predecessor’s vision for an outreach to address the loneliness for students so far from home. The Common Table is a monthly gathering for a meal.
Jamil and the Chi Alpha team use the Common Table to create a welcome centered around food.
“Each month, we cook a meal from a different country,” Jamil says. “Students participate by bringing a dish or coming over to my house early to help cook.” Isolation seems to disappear as students share a meal and rub shoulders with other foreign students and Chi Alpha students and staff members.
U.S. missionary Tyler W. Staton, Chi Alpha director at N.C. State, says 70% of international students never enter an American home, and 40% do not have a close American friend. Many of the students served through Chi Alpha at N.C. State are graduate students, and the isolation can be even higher for them because they may not live on campus and have access to university-sponsored student activities.
The beauty of the Common Table initiative comes to life through a story Jamil shares about a friendship that’s developed through the ministry via Daniel, a student leader from a small North Carolina town.
“Even though he didn’t bring experience working with international students, he turned out to be a natural,” Jamil says. “When Daniel and another student he was discipling came to the Common Table and met a new student from south India, the two of them just brought the international student under their wing. Now, whatever they do, they do together. They discovered they all like to work out and now have this workout crew of American guys and international guys.”
Jamil is thrilled to see the camaraderie.
“I didn’t want it to be all the international students and me,” she says. “I want them to connect with everyone.”
Staton observes that the Common Table events are about so much more than sharing a meal.
“The students come and enjoy all the things happening in the backyard — such as games and playing with Jamil’s kids and pets — and we develop other interests beyond just food,” Staton says.
For Jamil, it’s also a family affair. Her preschool-aged daughter and son love hanging out with their visitors.
“We even have a whole cricket pitch set up in the yard,” Jamil says. “My son plays with them, and some of the American students who’ve never tried the game are learning to play.”
More important than providing a welcoming home atmosphere and connections to other students, the Common Table opens doors to share the gospel.
“The main goal is connecting with people where they’re at and inviting them into the family of Christ,” Staton says.