Senior Kirsten Suter and junior Lydia Purdy are building a bridge between Eastern Kentucky University and the world.
Suter and Purdy compose the international student team at the EKU Baptist Campus Ministry (BCM). Their offerings to international students include monthly ELS (English Language Service) dinners, in which international students are invited to enjoy a home-cooked meal and practice their English with American students, and regular events. However, both girls extend their friendship and kindness to internationals beyond the BCM’s walls, having “spontaneous hangouts” with groups of them on a regular basis.
Suter, a senior chemistry major from Shelbyville, has been passionate about helping international students since her first encounter freshman year: “One day (at an ELS dinner) there were some Saudi Arabian girls sitting by themselves. I loved talking to them. It’s so cool to learn about other cultures and backgrounds, as well as share your own, in multicultural friendships.”
Suter’s compassion for her international friends ran so deep that in Fall 2017, she moved into the University’s international student living learning community (LLC), called the Global Village. “I wanted to intentionally build close friendships with the international students on the floor and make myself available to them,” she said. “It has been a great opportunity to get to know students I otherwise wouldn’t know as well.” The arrangement has been just as beneficial for her as the students: “The experience has reemphasized that diversity is something to celebrate.”
International ministry hits a little closer to home for Purdy. She was adopted from Vietnam at age 5, and has since lived in Gainesville, Texas; Hong Kong, China; and now Richmond, Kentucky. “Having grown up in the United States and in Asia, I feel like a connector between the two very different cultures,” she said. “So being able to connect and expose international students to Americans and their way of life, and vice versa, brings me so much joy.” Living abroad gave her an understanding of the culture shock internationals feel and helps her empathize. “Having someone who can help you through those transitions can make all the difference between a good or bad experience in studying abroad.”
Purdy, a junior education major, learned about the BCM through her position as an international admissions ambassador at EKU. She began attending ELS dinners, and quickly felt at home. “The more I went, the more I enjoyed being around the people and felt a wonderful sense of community,” she said. The next school year, she joined Suter on the international team.
The international students reciprocate Suter and Purdy’s desire to connect. Daiki Shibata, a Japanese student in the ELS program, began spending time at the BCM after invitations from floormates in the Global Village. He admitted that he has enjoyed meeting Americans and other internationals alike. “We have a lot of opportunities to meet not only American people, but also people from other countries. There are friends who are interested in Japanese culture and other countries’ cultures.” He expressed his gratitude for Suter and Purdy, and other leaders at the BCM. “These people have helped us a lot, and we are thankful they can make our lives much more comfortable.”
Kristina Lagoda, a Russian student-athlete and psychology major, also appreciates the outreach of the BCM: “I feel connected with Christian students on campus, and that gives lots of support, friendships, and a feeling of being a part of something amazing.”
Suter and Purdy have gone above and beyond everyday kindness. Both cite their faith as a driving force behind their love for and generosity toward international students. “This outreach is important because these are people that God made,” Suter said. “I am thankful that God created so many beautiful people and pursues the nations with His everlasting love.”
During the 2017-18 school year, Suter and Purdy have coordinated several events for international students: A Welcome to America party in August; a game night; a group trip to Jungle Jim’s International Market in Cincinnati, Ohio; Thanksmas, a party to educate the students about American customs surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas; and the Connect International Conference in Cave City, Kentucky.
The Connect Conference, held annually in November, was a favorite event of international students and international team leaders alike. Campus ministries from all over the Commonwealth bring international students and student leaders together for a weekend of fun activities to celebrate the cultures represented and learn about Christianity, an aspect of American culture about which many internationals and immigrants are curious.
“It’s an awesome weekend to build friendships, celebrate culture, and learn more about each other,” Suter said.
Lagoda called the experience unforgettable and life-changing. “I met amazing people there, got closer to God and had a great time while learning about faith,” she said. Shibata and Purdy also said Connect was their favorite event.
Pouring their time and friendship into students from such different cultures has shaped Suter and Purdy as people. “My experiences have taught me to be compassionate, patient, bold, and considerate,”said Purdy.
Nearing graduation, Suter always comes away changed. “Now that I have international friends, I find myself seeking them out,” she said. “I’ll go up and meet them on the sidewalk. I want to learn about their cultures and try new foods. It has opened my perspective vastly. Through this openness, I’ve learned so much about other cultures and ways of life.”
-- by Madison Harris, student writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management