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Blog post

Engaging international students in the UK: The experiences of Christian churches

Yun Yu, Research Fellow at Shanghai Normal University

International student mobility has been increasingly affected by politics, culture, economics, natural disasters and public health. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year, we have witnessed the unpredicted disruption to the movement of international students. The health crisis has challenged the main host countries including the United Kingdom. These side effects mean that connections between university communities and international students have become more critical than ever. Such connections not only benefit universities’ operation and recovery, as well as the learning and wellbeing of international students, but also exert a longer impact on the sustainable development of higher education (Tran, 2020). Therefore, it is timely and inevitable to reflect on how we view our approaches to engaging and working with international students.

Based on my PhD research project (Yu, 2017) on Chinese international students and their intercultural interaction with Christian churches in the UK, this blog post notes some key findings underpinning the effective engagement and support within or beyond universities, for (Chinese) international students in the UK in particular. According to the data from the fieldwork including the survey with about 500 Chinese students, interviews with 15 non-Christian Chinese student church participants and five church representatives, and participation observation in two local Christian churches, I identified and reflected on the effective intercultural engagement and support for international students from three dimensions in a dynamic, diverse and broader setting: universities, social communities and international students.

Structured diversity and connectedness

The lack of engagement between international and domestic students is often identified as one of the main concerns for universities that host international students (Leask, 2009). Research participants emphasised that the overwhelming majority of Chinese students, particularly in business schools, faced obstacles to establishing intercultural contact around the university, which potentially motivates them to explore engagement with a wider host society (such as Christian churches) (Yu & Moskal, 2019a). While universities are at least superficially internationalising or multicultural (Schweisfurth & Gu, 2009), and are promising and promoting intercultural experiences, they are not necessarily always delivering them, or they are lacking in continuity and suitability for Chinese students. Christian churches are therefore alternative places that students explore to gain intercultural experiences, regardless of their missionary work (Yu & Moskal, 2019b). For a few students, churches were even a home in which they came to feel a sense of belonging.

Institutional transformation and understanding

Church activities reiterate the need and awareness for ‘more student-centred service structure and delivery’ in the provision of social support for international students (Yu & Stoet, 2019). Religious organisations, through a series of adaptive transformations, enhance their acceptance and attractiveness in terms of their face-to-face interactions with international students. Based on years of interaction with international students, understanding the needs of students in a foreign country and possessing cross-cultural knowledge when encountering international students, churches adapt strategically in terms of any area from team building to social services, and they gradually form a global community for international students (Yu & Stoet, 2019).

Activating students’ agency

In the process of exploring potential cultural engagement, Chinese international students demonstrate freedom of agency through continuous negotiation and mediation process with the host environment (Yu, 2020). The emphasis on individual agency is not to neglect the services provided to meet students’ needs, but instead implies the need to provide a supportive environment that allows students to claim their agency. Universities and authorities are advised to fully facilitate the engagement space for international students, taking account of the construction of an inclusive campus environment to exercise students’ agency. Furthermore, it is recommended that universities gain some experience with or cooperate with the wider social community to make use of the rich social-cultural resources to enhance the students’ capacities for agency and facilitate intercultural interaction functionally, emotionally and mentally, especially during periods of crisis in international education such as Covid-19 (Green, 2019).


Green, W. (2019). Engaging ‘students as partners’ in global learning: Some possibilities and provocations. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(1), 10–29.

Gu, Q., Schweisfurth, M., & Day, C. (2010). Learning and growing in a ‘foreign’ context: Intercultural experiences of international students. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 40(1), 7–23.

Leask, B. (2009). Using formal and informal curricula to improve interactions between home and international students. Journal of Studies in International Education, 13, 205–221.

Tran, L. T. (2020). Teaching and engaging international students. Journal of International Students10(3), xii–xvii.

Yu, Y (2017). Church participation as intercultural encounter in the experiences of Chinese international students in the UK (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow).

Yu, Y. (2020). From universities to Christian churches: Agency in the intercultural engagement of non-Christian Chinese students in the UK. Higher Education, 80, 197–213.

Yu, Y., & Moskal, M. (2019a). Missing intercultural engagements in the university experiences of Chinese international students in the UK. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education49(4), 654–671.

Yu, Y., & Moskal, M. (2019b). Why do Christian churches, and not universities, facilitate intercultural engagement for Chinese international students? International Journal of Intercultural Relations68, 1–12.

Yu, Y., & Stoet, G. (2019). Encountering non-Christian Chinese international students: Cross-cultural adaptive practices of local Christian organisations in the UK. Journal of Beliefs & Values41(3), 305–321.