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Connecting with International Postgraduate Students

Philip Leung, PhD Student in Theoretical Astrophysics

At CGS you are very active in connecting with international postgrads. Why specifically international postgrads?

In Cambridge, about 70% of postgrads are international students. They come from all over the world, and for some of them it's their first time in a different country. With most members of the CGS being internationals ourselves, we remember the experience of arriving by yourself in a new country and its accompanying challenges. We want to show forth the love of Christ for the foreigner and stranger (Matthew 25:34-40) by providing a warm welcome to these students as they arrive. We also recognise that going to a new place often provides the trigger to thinking afresh about the big questions of life, and we want to make the most of every opportunity in sharing the wonderful hope we have in Jesus with those who're looking for answers.

How do you do this in practice?

We want to cast the net wide so that no one is missed out. We also want to particularly meet those who may have never come across Christians before or know anything about Christ. We do this by advertising our events through social media and freshmen group mailing lists. We also set up welcome desks at the train and coach stations for the 2 weeks during which most new students arrive. We hand out welcome booklets with helpful practical advice on settling in and a list of activities we'll be running which they can join. We also help them get to their accommodation from the stations by calling taxis and helping them load their luggage.

Activities-wise, we run social events where new friendships can be formed, such as afternoon teas, historical tours of Cambridge, punting, etc. We also run more practical tours of the town where we point out where useful shops and banks are, and give advice on how to best settle in the city. This year, we trialed a new "buddy system", where a couple of international students are linked with a Christian postgrad to form a "buddy" group. We found it to be really effective both in facilitating the formation of closer long-lasting friendships, as well as providing opportunities where we can have deeper conversations with our new friends.

One of our hopes in welcoming students is that they would see the radical and genuine love of Christ through the way we care for them, regardless of their previous or future interest in the Christian faith. We also want to give a gentle invitation to investigate the Christian faith for themselves, and provide contexts to dig deeper for those who'd like to do so. Each student is offered a welcome bag filled with essential items such as cutlery, plates and snacks to help with their first week here. It also contains a copy of the New Testament and Psalms, which they are invited to read or ask their Christian friends about if they want to. At the end of the welcome week, all students are invited to the final event: a tasty dinner in a large hall. There, we also give a short presentation of who we are and why we're welcoming them, offer fun tips on making the most out of Cambridge, as well as give a short invitational talk to introduce a theme of the gospel that they might want to explore further. There'll be a chance for them to sign-up to other social events that we'll be running throughout the year for international students, such as picnics, walks and dinners. There'll also be a chance for those who're interested to sign up for events that are more directly focussed on exploring the Christian faith, such as one of our weekly bible study groups, visiting a church with a Christian postgrad, or apologetics and evangelistic talks run by the undergrad Christian Union. 

Many groups have far less resources than CGS. What do you consider the most important part of your activities in connecting with international postgrads? What advice would you give for those who're starting out in this area?

First, pray. Even with the resources we have, we only reach a tiny percentage of the incoming students each year. We rely on the Lord of the harvest to gather, direct and send out his workers to where we can be most effective for His work. Start a dedicated regular prayer meeting where you're seeking His will and bringing to the Lord the needs of the work, and trust that He will direct you in the way you should go.

Second, partner. We don't do everything ourselves in the welcome week, but rely on both the practical help and generous donations from other Christians in the city. For example, most of the train and coach welcome desks are manned by volunteers from the undergrad Christian Union, while the finances and food for the final dinner are provided almost entirely by local church families. Get your local churches on board with the mission, though it may take time and persuasion. The work in Cambridge was developed over a period of 20 years, starting with a tiny international cafe run by a few students, before it was eventually fanned into the flame it is now. Let's not "despise the day of small things" (Zechariah 4:10), but persevere and know that our labour in the Lord is not in vain!

Third, prioritise. It's good to cast the net wide so that everyone is invited, but do value going deep with a few. This may mean setting up a sign-up system for the activities and placing a quota depending on your manpower. Also note that prioritising doesn't mean dropping guests if they don't show immediate interest in the gospel! We're there to welcome students with the genuine love of Christ, and that should not depend on their present or future interest. Do pray that the Lord of the harvest may open blind eyes and hard hearts to the glory of Christ, and that as the work becomes more plentiful that He would send out more workers into His field!

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Philip is a final year PhD student in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He's part of the Christian Graduate Society, a group of postgraduate Christian students seeking to reach the student community with the good news of the gospel and to grow in faith and fellowship.