Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chinese Freshmen in American Colleges Facing Challenges

The University of Iowa, like many universities around the US, has seen an increase in freshmen from China

One night in August, right before the fall semester started, I shopped at a local Walmart. Bumping into a few Chinese fellows at Walmart is common here in Iowa City, but never to such an extent like that night.

Mandarin chattings on what to buy, or guessing the use of some gadgets, etc. filled my ears from aisle to aisle. Everywhere I looked or moved, there would be a few Chinese people nearby. They were young and stylish, loading their shopping carts with everything from fruits to rice cookers and furniture. Some of them were shopping with a team, staffed by their parents, with the mother and child browsing through the shelf while the father pushing heavily-loaded shopping cart behind.

Make no mistake, they were the incoming freshmen at the University of Iowa from China, and they were brought to Walmart by two fully-occupied big school buses that night.

As the university struggle to balance its cost and revenue amid steep budget cuts, international students came to the rescue, since they pay full tuition instead of in-state tuition. That is, $23,713 vs. $7,417 per year, according to numbers shown on the UI website. Plus living expenses, health insurance mandated for international students, as well as books, these Chinese students, or, precisely speaking, their parents, are paying around $36,000 per year.

The New York Times ran an article in early August about the challenge to house all these international freshmen at UI. Among about 430 of them this year coming to UI, nearly 350 are from China alone, the New York Times reports. But for these Chinese students, the challenge goes way beyond finding a place to sleep.

After the first meeting of a journalism history class, for instance, four Chinese students came to the professor complaining that they didn’t understand the lecture, and couldn’t take notes. I am an instructor for two sections of the same history class, and the two Chinese students registered for one section dropped out in the first week.

I talked to a Chinese girl in my other section, and she admitted facing language barrier, especially for a journalism class. One day after class, she asked if she could speak Chinese when discussing a class related question with me. I said no. I told her she better speak English, because that was the reason she came to the US to study.

Nationwide in the US, steady increase in enrollment of undergrads from China has been a trend for a few years. In the 2004-05 academic year, 8,299 Chinese undergrads were enrolled in American universities. The number keeps rising year after year, to 26,275 in 2008-09 academic year, according to data collected by the Institute of International Education. Peggy Blumenthal, IIE’s executive vice president, contributed the increase to the rise of an economically strong middle class in China, their determination to provide the best education to their only child, as well as the scarcity of high quality college education within China, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The large number of incoming Chinese freshmen has caught the attention of Chinese students and professionals already at UI, and there is this sense that most of these kids are not able to get into a decent university in China through the competitive college entrance examination. At the same time, many people, including people not from China, wonder how these families can afford four years of higher education in the U.S.

Thousands of young Chinese men and women have made it to the US to pursue college education in recent years. These post-80s youth have far stronger purchasing power than my generation of the studying-abroad Chinese. But studying abroad is more than a shopping trip. I hope they have also the perseverance and diligence to overcome all the challenges and get the education they paid for.

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