(WNS) -- When she was 16 years old, Caijia Liu took a mandatory placement test that would determine what kind of future she would have in her native China. A good grade meant she might be one of the privileged few to go to college. A really good grade would grant her access to one of the nation’s top universities.
Liu placed among the top 10 students in her class of 470, all but guaranteeing her a spot at Beijing University, where only the best students attend college classes. Her future looked bright.
But Liu wanted a challenge. Ignoring the advice of friends and teachers, she chose to learn English by studying in America, first as a high school student and then in college.
Almost 700,000 international students come to the United States each year to pursue their education. Many of them, like Liu, are the best and brightest in their home countries, future leaders. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs lists 44 presidents and former presidents of foreign countries who have studied in the U.S. These leaders take home a better understanding of Western culture, first-hand experience with American democracy and sometimes, a new faith.
Although they make up only 3.4 percent of American college and university enrollment, international students are key targets for Christian campus ministries, which see their potential conversion as a way to spread the gospel around the world, especially into countries closed to missionaries.
China Student Ministries, at Penn State, reaches out to students with friendship and then introduces them to the gospel, staff member Joe Sullivan said. The students, who often are struggling with culture shock and isolation, are grateful for people willing to help guide them in their new, temporary home, Sullivan said.
“We meet people who are at this vulnerable and therefore receptive place in there lives and become the guides many often hadn’t dared even dream they’d find here,” he said. “We find them sometimes naive, often trusting, and possessing a very endearing childlike wonder at new things we help them to understand.”
The ministry’s main goal is to explain God’s love for them and give them a new knowledge of the Bible, Sullivan said.
After deciding to come to America, Liu applied to two private high schools in Illinois, one Christian and one secular. She chose the Christian school because she liked its website.
Like many others, Liu found the transition to America hard. She was homesick, and she struggled with the language barrier, sometimes unable to understand her homework assignments. But her exposure to Christianity gave Liu her biggest culture shock.
Liu didn’t consider herself religious in China, even though a devout aunt took her family to a Buddhist temple on occasion. But in America, where both her school and her host family were Christian, scripture memorization, church attendance and prayer became part of daily life. Although she adjusted to her new routine, Liu planned to leave God behind when she went to Penn State to study communications.
She contacted a Chinese student group at the last minute to ask for a ride from the airport to campus. She didn’t expect them to be there, but when she got off the plane, she found Sullivan waiting for her.
“The first question he asked me is, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’” Liu said.
She was shocked.
“And I told the guy, ‘I thought I just ran away from Him, but He took me back after not even two hours.’”
Sullivan helped Liu find a Bible study group and a local Chinese church. Liu soon accepted Christ, in part to avoid the sex, drugs and drunkenness so prevalent on campus, she said.
“I need a God to prevent me and help me stay away from all kinds of sins,” Liu said. “Then I decided it is the time to give myself to Him. And maybe I have already given myself to Him [a] long time ago without noticing that.”
Like Liu, many international students come from countries where Christianity is not accepted or is strictly forbidden. According to the Institute of International Education, 18 percent of America’s international students came from China in 2009-2010, more than any other country. Students from China, Korea and India made up 44 percent of the international student population that year. Other countries that send large numbers of students to the U.S. include Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Turkey.
According to Navigators’ International Student Ministry, seven of the top 10 countries sending students to the U.S. are closed to typical missionary efforts. No organization keeps statistics on how many students accept Christ while in America, but Navigators describes reaching international students as “possibly the most strategic mission in God’s kingdom today.”
Liu says her faith confirmed her plans to return to China, where she wants to share her faith.
Christianity needs “to flourish in China,” she said.
c. WORLD News Service 2011. Used with permission.
Publication date: October 10, 2011