US students investing in their future

Updated: 2012-01-06 11:35

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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US students investing in their future 

American student Katherine Jones learns how to make a Peking Opera masks in Liaocheng, Shandong province. Provided to China Daily

BEIJING - American students dreading the prospect of finding employment during tight economic times are looking to China to boost hiring credentials.

Even as the number of Chinese students enrolling in American universities' skyrockets to nearly 150,000 a year, thousands of Americans are looking to study in China in the hopes of gaining a leg up in the job environment back home.

For Chris Max, who's spent the past two and a half months studying Mandarin at The Hutong language school in Beijing, knowing China equals success.

The 22-year-old, who recently graduated from Santa Clara University in California with a degree in finance and economics, chose to dip into his savings to fly to China and learn the language with the hope of increasing his prospects for employers.

"Being a business major, China is huge right now. Having a business background and being able to speak Mandarin will be a big selling point to employers," the Washington native said.

Max, who in addition to housing and airfare spent more than $1,300 to enroll in the three-month language course, said seeing China on the ground and being able to understand the culture will be crucial when he finally steps into his first job interview.

He is one of thousands of students being encouraged to trek across the sea as the US pushes to make China a focal point for American students seeking global experience.

Spearheaded by the 100,000 Strong Initiative, a deal struck between US President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao in 2009 to dramatically boost the number of students studying in China by 2014, the effort is a sign of the US' desire to bridge the language and cultural barrier that often divide the two economic superpowers.

"The US-China relationship is probably the most consequential," said Carola McGiffert, director of the 100,000 Strong Initiative.

"It will only grow in importance over time and we need to make sure we're investing in growing a generation of leaders who have the cultural and language, and other skills, to manage this relationship in the future."

Though the program is far from its lofty 100,000 student benchmark, the pace of US students coming to China slowed to 1.7 percent in 2010 from more than 20 percent just four years ago, McGiffert remains optimistic.

"We're confident we can hit the 100,000 mark. It's going to require a lot of effort, a lot of work on both the US and Chinese side."

China is now the 5th largest destination for American students with more than 14,000 studying abroad in China in 2010, a large jump from 3,000 students a decade ago, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) 2011 Open Doors report in November.

"Students are particularly interested in learning the Chinese language and culture because of China's increasing importance in the world economy and the growing relationship between the US and China in business and many other sectors," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at IIE, a US nonprofit that promotes students studying abroad.

Blumenthal echoed Max's drive for coming to China, saying that it is not just the students that are realizing the value of a China education, but employers as well.

"Students and their future employers recognize that time spent in another culture prior to graduation imparts valuable lessons about collaboration and problem-solving that prepare the future professionals for global careers," Blumenthal said.

But, unlike their Chinese counterparts who study in the US for four years earning full degrees, American students cracking books on Chinese soil are often studying for a short period of time to gain enough credit for education institutions back home.

While there are around 14,000 students coming to China to study each year, only 1,660 are enrolled full time in Chinese universities, Blumenthal said.

At Tsinghua University, one of China's most prestigious universities with alumni including President Hu Jintao and former faculty members such as John T. Thort, former president of Goldman Sachs, US students make up the second-largest foreign nationality in population among the student body.

With 350 American academics enrolled in both full- and part-time courses, Wu Yunxing, director of foreign student affairs at Tsinghua, said they've seen a surge in the number of US graduate students joining their ranks.

"We have seen more and more American students enrolled in master's programs. They're trying to know more about China and get knowledge dealing with Chinese issues in international relations and public policy programs," Wu said.

Wu also attributed the rise in advanced university degrees, with most American students focusing on humanities, to an expanding number of English-taught courses.

He said another draw for US students enrolling full time at Chinese universities is the comparably low tuition costs and financial support available to Americans interested in overseas studies.

At Tsinghua University, Wu said the average cost of an American student earning a degree in engineering is around 30,000 yuan ($4,761) per school year. While it's significantly higher than the average 5,000 yuan paid by Chinese nationals because of financial regulation from the government, it is markedly lower than the cost for top tier education at schools such as Harvard or Yale, where the average price tag runs from $35,000 to $40,000 per year.

Combined with the large number of government programs from both China and the US, qualified students are finding that cost is no longer a barrier for studying halfway around the world.

China Daily