Q. Why you think study-abroad culture became so pervasive in China?
A. This has much to do with the rise of a middle class in China hungry for quality education opportunities. Despite heavy investment and expansion, the Chinese higher education system has not stood out yet in the league of world class universities — only two Chinese universities are ranked among the top 100 in the world, while over 40 of American institutions are. China’s middle and upper class consider that overseas education could be the savior for their children’s education.
Q. The stereotype of Chinese students is that they are wealthy and pampered. Why is that problematic?
A. It is problematic on two fronts: It obscures the socioeconomic diversity among Chinese students. I’ve interviewed students whose parents sold their only apartment to move to the edge of the city, so as to realize the profits in the midst of China’s real-estate boom. Middle-class parents work several jobs. Chinese students yearn for paid campus jobs — one third of my sample worked on campus to alleviate their parents’ financial burden. The stereotype of the wealthy and pampered delegitimizes Chinese students’ academic and social struggles and prevents American institutions from recognizing their needs and providing necessary support.
Q. You came to the U.S. as a student from China, yet you are a generation older than these students. What do you see as the similarities and differences between your experience and that of today’s students?
A. My generation and this generation of Chinese students both yearn to broaden their horizons and see a larger world through study abroad. We are different in that my generation was largely funded by American higher education, primarily through graduate school and doctoral research programs, whereas a majority of this generation of Chinese students are self-funded. It is also much more common or “natural” for this generation of Chinese students to study abroad than in my generation. This change reflects the rise of China in the world and the capacity of its people to afford international education.
Q. In the book, you lay out actions colleges can take to improve the Chinese student experience and help them succeed in American higher education. What are a few key pieces of advice?
A. In admissions policies, I suggest more direct recruitment in China by partnering with local schools, which can help Chinese students gather better information during college application process, rather than leaning on the third-party agencies that often lack quality control. In student affairs, institutions need to take a proactive approach and provide more structured networking opportunities for Chinese students. For example, University of Illinois’s football 101 camp may benefit Chinese students through the social glue of campus sports. For faculty support, a few classroom strategies may be helpful for Chinese students’ classroom participation, such as more small-group discussions and more preparation before speaking rather than spontaneous speaking. Last but not the least, career services may work with alumni office to build a strong global alumni network, which in turn may help Chinese students locate career opportunities in global China or Asia.
Q. From the coronavirus to Sino-American political tensions, we’re at a moment of uncertainty when it comes to China. What do you think the future holds for Chinese student interest in studying in the U.S.?
A. Sino-American political tensions and the coronavirus will undoubtedly pose new challenges and potentially dampen the enthusiasm for Chinese students to study in America in the near term. However, I think that in the foreseeable future, China will remain the top sending country for international students to America. This is largely due to the unprecedented size of the middle class. Their strong demand for quality higher education cannot be met by the Chinese domestic education system, which despite much effort to reform, is still mired in the rat race of testing. This drives many Chinese students away.
Thanks to Yingyi. I have an extra copy of her book, which she has been gracious enough to offer to latitude(s) readers. If you are interested, send me an observation or questions you have about Chinese students in America to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll share the answers — and send one reader a copy of Yingyi’s book!