Life as an International Christian Student

1. Hi Swarup, could you tell us a little about yourself, including where and what you study, and your home country?

I am a PhD student looking at Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh. My thesis involves exploring an inclusive and open theology in the context of the church in Northern India. I come from Kolkata, India and I have been ordained as a minister of the Diocese of Calcutta, in the Church of North India (CNI).

2. Your wife and child actually live back in India, it must be hard to be apart from them so much of the time. Is there anything positive that you have learned from dealing with some of the challenges that this presents?

It is really a challenge to stay away from family for such a long time. I have had frequent bouts of deep loneliness, guilt, frustration and depression. But on a lighter note, I have learned to cook by myself! More substantially, I have learnt the supreme value of family and friendships and the need for generosity and kindness. Through all this, I have come out stronger and wiser, morally and spiritually.

3. As an international student, do you think there are any other pressures or challenges you face that a home student might not have to deal with?

Yes, of course. There’s the culture shock, which means dealing with a different language, mannerisms, food, weather, and an altogether different lifestyle. There’s also a constant concern at how I’m perceived or treated as someone from a different country.

4. What are you most proud of achieving so far in your time as a student in the UK?

Academically, I have developed an increased skill in writing and learning. Ecumenically, I have been grateful for the chance to connect across the denominational divide with organisations like SCM and Christian Aid. Socially, I have the privilege of making friends with people from across the globe. Ecclesiastically, it has been a huge honour representing the CNI in official synods and assemblies of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland, and ministering to one of the congregations within the former.

5. Having now lived in the UK for a couple of years, have you come to appreciate anything about the culture or society here that you didn’t before? What has surprised you the most?

I have come to appreciate the open and often non-judgemental (in public at least!) mindset of the people here and their friendship. One of the things that surprised me was seeing students ending up with huge loans. In India, for a middle-class family, most of the financial burden of a student’s education lies with their parents until the student finds a suitable job, which inevitably reduces the stress on the latter during their studies.

6. What are some of the things you love about being a Christian international student? How can home students help to reach out international students like yourself?

It is the fellowship and friendship that only a church or related organisations like the SCM can give, that makes life more meaningful as a Christian international student. In term of reaching out, it’s important to create more spaces and opportunities for international students to speak, engage and act. They must be able to feel at home and be encouraged to contribute to events and discussions here.

7. What are some of the main differences in culture and faith between the UK and your home in India?

The following are to be taken as broad generalisations. I feel the UK is hugely secular (though religion does play its part), while India is hugely religious, diverse and plural. Festivals are people and community oriented in India, while here it seems to be more individualistic. There are also many things that India can learn about health, hygiene and civic discipline from the UK.

8. What are your plans and ambitions after finishing your postgraduate degree?

I look forward to continue my pastoral ministry for the time being and eventually taking up the teaching profession in a theological institution.

Swarup is an SCM member and a trained minister in the Church of North India.