Circle of friends
When Wooseung Hong moved to Lawrence in January, he didn’t know anybody, and he had never been to the United States.
“At the time, I was a stranger at KU,” the South Korean native says of his arrival at Kansas University. “I needed some friends and some help.”
Someone suggested he get involved with the International Friends organization on campus. He found exactly what he was looking for.
“The people are very nice,” Hong says.
Dozens of international students find the same thing when they arrive at KU each year – a group of people wanting to help them with English and explain American history and customs.
The army of volunteers – something like 75 American students and an additional 100 community members – is a Christian group affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, but they try not to push their faith too much.
“Jesus went around being helpful and healing people,” says Len Andyshak, the group’s director. “He got people to like him, and in the process of doing that, he could talk about the kingdom of God.”
Andyshak says groups similar to International Friends have existed on the KU campus for decades.
The latest incarnation began in 1995, when Andyshak returned from missionary work in Ukraine, which gave him a new perspective on the world.
“I was a regular American guy before that,” he says. “It completely changed the way I saw the world and international students.”
International Friends offers occasional gatherings to talk about topics such as American holidays or farming here.
It also offers “conversation partners,” which pairs the international students with Americans of the same gender and approximately the same age and background. They get together weekly for relaxed conversations to improve their English.
“A lot of it is somebody willing to sit down and talk to them,” Andyshak says. “Everybody’s afraid to talk to them. They’re surrounded by Americans, and there’s no one to talk to.”
Shu-Yun Ho of Taiwan spent two years in Washington, D.C., in a master’s program before she moved to Lawrence.
She thought Washington would be the same as Kansas. But she arrived at Kansas City International Airport at midnight with no one to pick her up, and found the traffic here an issue after easily navigating the subway system in the U.S. capital.
Through International Friends, Ho says she eventually met enough people to like Lawrence.
She’s been involved in many of the group’s activities, even though she grew up in a family affiliated with Buddhism and Taoism.
“Why I stay here is they don’t push too hard – that if I don’t believe in Christianity, otherwise I will go to hell,” Ho says. “In International Friends, I don’t feel that pressure at all. They make me feel so comfortable. They show me what a good Christian does. They make me want to be more like a Christian.”
Andyshak says it’s sometimes difficult to find enough volunteers to fill the requests from international students, who often find out about International Friends during orientation and through acquaintances.
One of those who got involved is Joshua Shireman, a graduate student who felt called to help international students through his time traveling through China, where he felt welcomed.
“I felt, in the Christian world, you’re supposed to serve strangers and serve people who are visiting,” he says. “I felt really kind of strongly about helping treat people who come to America better.”
He’s driven foreign students to the grocery store and served as a conversation partner. And he agrees that the faith aspect is secondary – or at least faith through action.
“We have some discussions, but it’s nothing like your stereotypical Bible-bashing, that you must convert to Christianity or anything like that,” Shireman says. “We like to challenge people on different things. People have a lot of different attitudes about religion, discussing things about the Bible. Some people just think, ‘This is stupid.'”
Pat Nadvornik, another American KU graduate student, says he’s seen many benefits for the international students involved.
“I think a lot of students really enjoy the English practice,” Nadvornik says. “There’s a cross-cultural benefit, hanging out with the Americans. The social aspect is really nice.”
He adds: “If they are interested in the spiritual component, it’s available. But the spiritual component, hopefully it’s not in-your-face.”
Andyshak says most of the international students involved don’t have Christian backgrounds, but they want to learn about a Christian lifestyle. He compares it to Christian Americans visiting India and visiting Hindu temples.
“Most of them very much have a cultural curiosity,” he says. “It’s a matter of plausibility – could you ever believe that (Christianity)?
“The goal is to love these guys, to reach out to a friend in the name of Christ, and figure the Lord will do what he will do.”