INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS AND COVID-19 PANDEMIC: Rethinking International Students Ministry

Teng Yang Tan 1

Much have been reported and discussed about the impact of COVID-19 on lives of people around the world. Some were affected more than others. Many social NGOs have rushed to help people who are poor and marginalized. Studies have shown that the impact of this pandemic on ordinary people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, is unprecedented. One of the most vulnerable population groups ignored is international students. The responsibility has fallen on many concerned churches, compassionate Christians, and missions’ organizations to alleviate the negative impact on these students.
Looking back, we were amazed by how the number of international students had leapfrogged over 200% in three decades. We saw many international students crossing borders, cultures, and languages to pursue higher education and knowledge. Countries like US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and UK were opening doors wide to these students. Asian countries, like Malaysia, followed suit about 15 years ago. Malaysia projected an increase in international students intake from 177,000 a year ago to 250,000 by 2025. A small country like New Zealand had close to 120,000 international students not too long ago. It was presented that this is “A single most significant human movement in history”, the most strategic mission in God’s Kingdom today for fulfilling the Great Commission. – Global Frontier Missions.
Many countries had benefited from the economic prosperity brought to the countries’ shore, not to mention rich cultures that they brought with them. The tremendous contributions international students make to the countries’ economy had resulted in governments introducing policies and developing higher institutions to attract more international students.
All these have changed in just one painful year!
For many of them, studying abroad has been the first-time experience, leaving home for the first time, and living independently elsewhere. Though it can be adventurous, exciting, it can also be scary and feeling quite lost. When crisis like pandemic hit, they were taken aback and confused as to what future holds.
We will explore how COVID-19 impacted the lives of these international students, how they cope with many restrictions imposed, what negative or positive outcomes that change their outlook, financial issues, governments’ initiatives, and how churches, Christians, and missions’ agencies could help.

To Stay

It is an understatement that COVID-19 has drastically changed the educational landscape of international students around the world. “Change” is the word that sums up the predicament. University programs have changed; living situation has changed; social interactions and communications have changed; mobility has changed; financial sustainability has changed; ability to cope mentally has also changed…… Most lectures, and classes have been moved on-line, with minimal contact with lecturers, and tutors. Governments have embarked on a slogan: “A new normal”, requesting everyone to change one’s mindset to adapt to “new normal” like wearing face masks, social or physical distancing, frequent washing of hands, and restricting movement. But the “new normal” seldom takes into consideration of mental and spiritual conditions faced by people, more so the international students who are lost and harassed.
Not to overlook is reports of an increase in xenophobia, prejudice, and racism that confront some Asian students. Two international students, one a Malaysian, and the other a Singaporean were attacked in Australia, accused of spreading “Chinese” virus. “Honestly, physically, it wasn’t that bad because I protected myself. But it was more of a mental trauma. Now, we’re scared to even go out. We get more wary of white people, especially if they come up to us or are running towards us. Since the lockdown, everyone is being really open with how they feel about Asians. They think ‘cause you’re Asian, you have the virus. It doesn’t make sense at all.”, one of the students commented. (Source:
“A Thai student who has been studying in Belgium, reports multiple incidences of slur being directed at her on campus such as “corona” and “no mask” (when she was wearing a mask). ‘It just kind of opened my eyes to how some people are,’ she says. She says these experiences often reduced her motivation to study and sometimes made her sad and angry” (An example given by Amoneeta Beckstein, a multicultural positive counselling psychologist.
“A Malaysian student has described being evicted from her Perth (Australia) home due to her landlord’s fears about the coronavirus outbreak, despite the fact she had not travelled to China.” (ABC News 13 February 2020)

Some countries have revised their visa policies as one of the reasons to combat this pandemic. One example is the recent US immigration ruling that drastically affect international students. With this new ruling, students do not know if they can finish their programs or if they can even start a program or allowed to re-enter the country if they temporarily return home. They are burdened with anxiety of facing the risk of being deported, or their student status changed, irrelevant of whether they have a legitimate enrolment in institutions. Thankfully, the decision that affects international students was somehow dropped as a result of protest from various institutes of higher learning. “While the government agreed to rescind that directive in response to litigation, the rescission left the fate of new international students unclear.” (Source: Inside Higher Education November 25 2020) Nevertheless, the anxiety is still there.
With all these changes unpreventably falling on everyone, along with the chronic stress of the pandemic, it may pose mental-health challenges, which is usually not part of a “relief” effort given to citizens, let alone international students. University and college programs have ground to a halt with exams postponed, classes shifted to online mode. Some were in dilemma, as their courses were linked to international institutions that conduct exams at certain times beyond their control. Some were not adequately prepared as helps were not appropriately given for the exams. Mentally, they were affected by uncertainty, anxiety, and situation where they have no access to counselling and advice.
A Chinese student who decided to stay experienced chronic depression. The university she enrolled in was closed for an unspecified period of time. No counsellors were available on campus to help her. Church workers were not allowed in except under compelling circumstances.
An international couple who came to Malaysia to study, together with their 2 children, faced an even daunting task of keeping their family intact and upbeat in a situation like this. They decided to stay as it was too expensive and difficult for them to travel as a family. The biggest concern for them is worrying about their loved ones (his mother was not well) at home with little hope of being together anytime soon due to suspension of flights.
If they stay, many international students have to find ways to cope with all these changes. Furthermore, there are extra expenses incurred – if they are among those who require COVID tests. Do they have to be further quarantined? Do they have enough money to stay on? Who to turn to when their family members are not here to support? Where can they release their stress in situations like this?

To Leave
But if they choose to leave, they face another problem: travel restriction. Many countries have imposed a ban or a conditional travel regulation in and out of countries’ borders around the world. On top of that there is also limited access to suitable transport arrangement. Almost all airlines are cutting back on their flights in and out of countries. One student had to pay almost double the fare, with a number of stopovers, to get her back to her home country. She had to borrow money to purchase the ticket. They would have to forfeit deposits to their lodging, university fees. Coupling with the stress of returning home, they have to figure out what the future holds for them. Some have not completed their prescribed courses and without academic qualifications to lean on.

Some African students expressed dismay that if they did not complete their studies, they would face criticism, and even worst culturally they would face shame at home. Many have paid exorbitant amount of money to be able to study abroad.
There are more stories of international students, and God has given us an incredible opportunity to carry out His command to reach the nations through international student ministry, especially in time of crisis. As you can see, the tremendous pressure befalls these students is real. They need help more than we could imagine.

The fallout from COVID-19 pandemic for educational institutions around the world will likely be definite and longer than expected. Institutions that depend on international students will face serious financial repercussion, given the pandemic’s broad and unsettled impact on global mobility. We see a drastic drop in enrollment everywhere around the world. That means the opportunity to reach these students has become less.
In Malaysia, for example, the requirement is strict for international students.

“If the students come from countries categorised as a Covid-19 red zone, they must be placed under the 14-day quarantine at their residence and download the MySejahtera (tracing app) application.
“For those from green zones, they only need to be screened for Covid-19 but are not required to be under quarantine for 14-day at home (should they test negative),” A senior government minister said. Reported The New Strait Times (19 June 2020)

While conditions for international mobility could hardly be worse, we still see a general interest in studying in Malaysia. The approval to study in Malaysia is still pending, though.

“Thousands of foreign students are waiting to enter Malaysia to continue their studies and despite the border closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of new applications is showing an upward trend since May.
A check with Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) showed that a total of 6,088 out of 14,949 students have applied from January to July this year to enrol in degree programmes.
The majority are from China.” Reported The Star News (28 August 2020)

The Star News report inspires some hope that the impact, while serious, the enrolment in Malaysia may be less pessimistic than feared. But the longer the pandemic lasts, the more international students will change their plans. The longer they wait, they will develop a decreasing appetite for pursuing education abroad.
One positive trend, though, is that many international students seem to view this crisis as a temporary phenomenon. Many are hoping that countries will begin to open up as their governments implement progressive approaches to combating this pandemic. Countries that bring the spread of pandemic under control the earliest will almost certainly have an advantage in recruiting international students. At the time of this writing, news of possible availability of effective vaccine raised some hope. Much will have to be done by various government agencies to affirm the international students that they will be taken care of once accepted, and a real opportunity to show that their countries are more desirable as destinations for higher education.

In every situation, God causes His Church to respond according to His direction. A situation as serious as COVID-19 requires unusual, and coordinated response. We could wait and hope for the best, or we could respond by obeying Hid leading. I believe God has created an opportunity for His Church to communicate His mercy, love, and lead many into His Kingdom. Lord, what do you want me to do?

God-Focused Mindset
Nothing takes God by surprise. His plan for international students is still very much intact. God’s purpose is to be known and enjoyed and praised as infinitely glorious in his free and sovereign grace. This is the purpose that governs all the works of God.

“O LORD, my God, you have accomplished many things;
you have done amazing things and carried out your purposes for us.
No one can thwart you!
I want to declare them and talk about them,
but they are too numerous to recount!”
(Psalm 40:5 NET)

God opens doors and He shuts doors; all for His own purpose. He knew that universities would be closed, classes cancelled, and He knew all about the travel restrictions and economic turbulence. These so called crisis more than often drives people to seek Him. Somewhere, somehow, some ways, in some appropriate times He would open other doors to opportunity for ministry.

Getting Our Perspective Right
God has a command in Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
The command requires welcoming, walking alongside, same treatment as you would give to your own country folks, and most important of all is to love, irrespective of race, religion, status, or ethnicity.
It is always a challenge to have Kingdom perspective. These international students might not stay on to help with church programs, organisational activities, or just to fill the numbers in churches. But God has a different design and plan to reach nations from our door steps. There are many examples of how international students who were helped and returned home to be light and salt in their own countries and communities. The Great Commission to disciple all nations for His Kingdom is very much on God’s mind.

Recognising that Every Crisis Creates Evangelism Opportunity
Like many locals, international students who are in a host country, the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to “attend” classes on-line. While the locals would take every opportunity to rush home, many international students were unable to return to their home countries.
Stress and physical needs create an opportunity for serving and fostering genuine friendship. With modern and efficient communication, church and mission workers could manage to connect with these students virtually. Occasional visits, whenever possible, give rise to personal and emotional sharing. Gospel message came through in a real and transformational way.
Many were invited to attend virtual church services. Instead of hosting large gathering, on-line technology can be used to convey the same information and communication at a distance, with individual follow up sessions. It was a new experience for the first-timers to the church services. And many we talked to were just delighted by the opportunity to “attend” church, and thus opened up windows of opportunity for the Gospel, and the sowing of seeds.
We partnered with a city church to conduct on-line Bible discussions from the start of the pandemic and the program attracted students from various backgrounds and beliefs. We have seen the hunger to know about God and His message. Some have never had opportunity to hear and talk about the Christian message until this approach is made available. A student from a closed country asked for a Bible so he could read it.
One partnering church has embarked on on-line English classes for international students, attracting many, especially the Chinese students. Through this program the church has served in various capacity in helping these students cope with the changes and great opportunity to share the Gospel. These students would drop by to talk, seek counsel or just a place for them to release stress by plying badminton and table-tennis at the church’s roof-top court.
We need to constantly remind ourselves that evangelism is not a one-dimensional activity or program, it requires holistic approach – meeting needs, providing help, sharing life, studying the Bible, hospitality, and even praying with them, and for them and their families. Some were done virtually, others were done on a personal and very small group basis.

Counselling and Mentor Ministry
Since the pandemic can have adverse consequences for international students’ mental-health, we encourage churches and missions groups to provide biblical-based on-line counselling services. We dare not take this challenge lightly as reports and studies have shown that mental stress can be very devastating to one’s health and future endeavour. In some extreme cases it might lead to chronic depression or even suicide.
Dr. Rozanizam Zakaria, professional psychiatry professor, wrote: “50 percent of cases of mental problems start before the age of 14 years….. We need better mental health networks in the community for the purpose of prevention and treatment….We also need to increase the empowerment of on-line counselling services.” (
Dr. Rozanizam’s concern highlights the lack of such services, let alone a spiritual one.
An ISM team member who used to have international students from many nations gathered, before the COVID lockdown, in her home also reported that many students missed the time where they could share, have fun, and eat together, participate in Bible discussions. Through these gathering, they sought refuge, counselling, and friendship. Now they would have to rely on virtual “meet”. But because of the conducive environment and the hospitality that they experienced before the lockdown, they are equally keen to “meet” to keep their friendship and receive inputs. They see this group as their family in host country.
This is an opportunity for churches to provide such services and mentor ministry, friendly and approachable, that the international students can contact and seek help. We believe that biblical counselling and personal mentoring are the best solutions for healing and spiritual support.

Equipping the Workers
With most regular programs halted or slowed down, it would be the most ideal time to think about retraining our workers who work among international students, or those who have been keen to get involved. It is not uncommon for churches and Christian missions to use technology to equip their workers in time like this. On-line, or digital conferences, Zoom training sessions should be organised. Our team has a series of webinars on understanding cultures so as to equip workers to understand various worldviews and communicate the Gospel in various cultural understanding. The webinars were attended by various church workers, missions leaders, and Christian student leaders.
Other tools or webinars in the pipeline are “How to do story telling”, “Discipling international students”, and “Preparing international students for home”.
We also must emphasise that ministering among the needy is not at all easy and requires a lot of support and compassion. “When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36 NIV) To be compassionate is to give one’s energy, time, resources, and heart to others to meet their needs. That will take a lot out of a worker of the Gospel. A friend who laboured in the harvest field among the refugees and migrants, has mentioned about “compassion fatigue”. We must seriously consider this in equipping our workers. Help and support must be given to them to relieve this fatigue before it takes toll on them. The Lord assures His people that: “All day long he shows compassion and lends to others, and his children are blessed.” (Psalm 37:26 NET)

Networking Among Churches and Christian Workers
In some countries, international students are quite widely spread out in different locations. Some churches cater to a certain nationality, while others have international students from many parts of the world. Some churches are beginning to see the need to reach out, some do not have resources to help the students, and some do not have the skills and experience to engage these students. There are many Christian missions groups, or Christian fellowships in campuses who are already working among these students. One of the roles of International Student Ministry (ISM) is to provide a network where churches, organisations, and Christian fellowship groups could link up and share experiences, and resources. We are praying to set up teams in different districts, comprising various groups to work together to reach and serve these students, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. (John 4:36)

Corporate Prayer
Nothing more pleases the Lord than when God’s people come together to pray. When we pray we recognise that God is our source of refuge, encouragement, help, and peace. When Jesus looked at the crowd, he said to the disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38) Jesus’ whole focus is God and God’s ability to do something, to put things right, to make it work, to know what needs to be done.
We, as human, have little ability to stop the onslaught of COVID pandemic, but we have God who is all powerful, all knowing, all present, our anchor, defender, and shelter. The Psalmist is so reassuring:

But let all who take refuge in You rejoice;
let them shout for joy forever.
May You shelter them,
and may those who love Your name boast about You. (Psalm 5:11-12)

Corporate prayer opens up your heart to the needs of others. Not only does it bring encouragement, edification, joy, and the feeling of love among believers, it prompts believers to reach out in love.
We organise a bi-monthly prayer to allow churches and co-workers to come together to pray for international students. We share needs of these students, activities, and progress in ministry. We usually link these students to churches so that they could be helped or savour the Christian fellowship and the Word of God. It is a conduit to unity, spirit of oneness, and blessing in glorifying God together.
When international students see how God is in control, how He answers prayers, how He causes His people to pray and love them, they who are touched by God will “boast about” Him in time to come.

Below is an excellent prayer guide provided by InterVarsity for Students (please see:

  • Pray for international students who have had to leave their dorms but are unable to return to their home countries and families.
  • Pray for students’ mental and physical health as they experience isolation away from their campus communities.
  • Pray against anxiety, fear, and loneliness.
  • Pray for students having to return home to difficult family situations and non-Christian households. Pray for their transition, for peace, and for the strength to minister to their families.
  • Pray for students who may face financial stresses due to no longer having services often provided by universities, such as dining halls, libraries and the Internet, medical services, in-person tutoring, and childcare.
  • Pray for those who this would have been their last semester on campus and are grieving over the cancelation of graduation ceremonies and other senior celebrations with their campus communities.
  • Pray for them as they job hunt in what might be a challenging economic environment. As many universities and colleges move to distance learning, pray that education continues to be accessible to all, especially students with disabilities.
  • As InterVarsity transitions to virtual ministry, pray for innovation for student leaders as they continue to lead and minister to other students.
  • Pray also for even greater evangelism, that new students would be reached in new ways, as they ask deeper questions in this season of uncertainty.

  • Additional:
  • Pray for the churches in host countries to demonstrate compassion, inclusiveness, and care for these students, seizing the opportunity to share the love of Christ.
  • Pray for unity, love, and the spirit of collaboration among churches and missions’ organizations for the glory of Christ. “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 CSB)
  1. Mr. Teng Yang Tan and his wife became Christians when studying in New Zealand through The Navigators. He is Full-time with The Navigators since 1987. He ministered among university students from 1982 to 1996. He was responsible for The Navigators Prayer Ministry from 1993 to 2011. He became the Chairman for The Navigators Malaysia from 2004 to 2008. Then he was called to New Zealand to lead the International Students Ministry from 2011 to 2016. He returned to Malaysia to help coordinate an interdenominational/international team to reach out to the international students in Malaysia. []

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