by Tammy Chi Eckhart
Study abroad can feel like vacation—a break from "real" school back at your home university and "real" life. But there’s so much more to studying abroad if you’ll let Jesus guide you and be willing to learn from him.
I spent my junior year studying abroad in Australia. I did a little traveling, made life-long friends, and came to faith in Jesus. Here are four things I learned about growing my faith while studying abroad:
1. Connect with a local faith community as soon as you can
I got plugged into a local church’s campus ministry within my first four weeks. They became the witnessing community that helped me see what following Jesus was really about. Whether it’s a church of expats, locals, or a campus fellowship, find a place to get connected and do it within your first couple weeks.
InterVarsity has sister movements in over 150 countries around the world; see if there is one at your university.
My participation in campus ministry while studying abroad not only led to my decision to follow Jesus, it also introduced me to the importance of loving and serving others. In the midst of my multiethnic Christian community, I learned about God’s heart for reconciliation and got a glimpse of the diversity of God’s kingdom. Connecting to a local faith community isn’t just necessary for your own spiritual health; it’s an opportunity to experience what God is doing in a different part of the world.
2. Be a learner
While studying abroad, it’s likely you’ll discover all kinds of cultural idiosyncrasies—from breakfast preferences (ever tried vegemite on toast?) to concepts of time (does showing up “on time” mean arriving 10 minutes early, on the dot, or 20 minutes past?). Don’t be quick to make judgments or draw conclusions about the things you see—instead, ask questions and listen for how people respond. The differences (and similarities) we observe across cultures provide a glimpse into the diversity of God’s kingdom and the similarities that unite humankind. In Australia, I found myself immersed in a multicultural faith community of white Australians, southeast Asians, and Africans. Invitations to people’s homes were widespread and I observed students loaning money to their friends on more than one occasion. Their lives of faith stood in stark contrast to the culture I was familiar with—one that values privacy and making good appearances. And from them, I tasted firsthand God’s generous invitation to come and eat at his table.
3. Let relationships trump travel
I love to travel and definitely did some in Australia, but I didn’t view every weekend as an opportunity to get away. There will be many opportunities to travel while you study abroad, but don’t overlook investing in relationships with people locally as well.
Aside from one trip with students from my U.S. university, the rest of my travel was with students I met locally. As a result, I forged deep friendships within the local community.
4. Pay attention to the people God puts in your path
Sometimes the structure of a study abroad program or the length of your stay may make it difficult to build relationships with people locally. This might mean you’ll need to make an extra effort to build relationship with locals or it could be these are the people God’s calling you to invest in for this time. Everyone studying abroad is sharing a similar experience and typically away from his or her support networks, so friendships can develop quickly.
During my first visit to church, I was introduced to Jana, another American studying abroad in Australia. In contrast to my spiritual confusion, Jana was confident about her faith in Christ. She befriended me and invested deeply in my life. From her, I learned about pursuing godly relationships, the importance of developing a devotional life, and how to listen for God’s voice. While the larger community showed me God’s love on a grand scale, Jana gave me a picture of walking with God daily. Because Jana was paying attention to the people God put in her path, we not only developed a lasting friendship, but her handprint is now etched in my spiritual foundations.
In many ways, learning from Jesus while studying abroad isn’t a whole lot different from when you’re at home. Keep asking God to show you what he’s doing; be open to learning and ready for surprises!