Chinese students flock to Iowa

Updated: 2012-02-14 15:28

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Chinese students flock to Iowa

Associate Professor Xinwei Wang (left), mechanical engineering graduate student Guoqing Liu (center) and postdoctoral research associate Xiaopeng Huang study thermal conductivity of organic materials at Iowa State University's Applied Sciences Complex in Ames, Iowa. [Courtesy of Bob Elbert / Iowa State University]

NEW YORK - In a trend that is occurring across the United States, Iowa's universities have experienced a rapid surge in enrollment by Chinese students in the past few years, officials report.

Iowa State University saw an increase in total undergraduate enrollment from 72 Chinese students in 2002 to 1,212 students in 2012. At the University of Iowa, total enrollment of Chinese students (including graduate students) increased from 591 in 2005 to 1,737 in 2011.

"The increase is primarily due to a combination of a growing Chinese middle class and the growing ability of families in China to afford to send students to the US, combined with the belief of Chinese families that students will get both a good education and a stronger proficiency in English," said James Dorsett, director of ISU's International Students and Scholars Office.

Chinese universities have also become much more competitive in recent years, said Russell Ganim, director of UI's Division of World Languages. Acceptance standards have become more stringent, making Western institutions an attractive alternative, he said.

"While there's a huge selection of universities in China, there are so many students at college-age who can't get into Chinese universities that they have to seek other opportunities in the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere," Ganim said. "You could call it 'education outsourcing in reverse."

Patricia Parker, associate director of admissions at ISU, said that the university recruits heavily in China. Within the past several years, the US State Department has responded to concerns voiced by various universities that visa application standards were too rigid, she said.

"It has become much easier for students from China to get a visa," Parker said. "So we have worked hard to let people in China know that Chinese students are welcome here in Iowa."

ISU also provides credit for coursework done through the Global Assessment Certificate program, which allows international students to do language preparation studies before arriving in the US. Additionally, the university provides proof of "conditional acceptance," making it easier for international students to apply for visas prior to passing language tests, she said.

One major development in recent years has been an increase in Chinese students who choose to return to China after they graduate, Dorsett said.

Dorsett believes that the increase in students who return to China is because of a lack of jobs available in the US and an increasing number of opportunities in China.

"The US job market is not that friendly to international students," Parker said. "US companies don't want to pay to convert their visas or sponsor them, so they're much more likely to choose a candidate who doesn't have to deal with visa issues."

Ziyu Jiang, president of ISU's Chinese Students and Scholars Association, agreed.

"It's difficult for Chinese students or other international students to find a job here, or even internship opportunities. China is developing so fast and there are so many prospects back in China. We feel more confident returning to China now."

For students returning to China after graduation, a degree from an American institution is still considered very valuable, Dorsett said.

"There is a perception that a Western education will give students a leg up in their careers," he said.

Downing Thomas, dean of international programs at UI, said that the broad liberal arts education that an American institution can offer does not commonly exist in China.

Jiang believed that a Western education teaches independence.

"In Chinese universities, the focus is on textbooks," he said. "But in America, the focus is on a mix of both knowledge and practice. There's also a stronger emphasis on teamwork, which is really useful."

A Western degree, however, is slightly less valuable in the Chinese job market than it was in previous years, Jiang said. "Ultimately it still depends on how hard you work in the US and what skills you develop. So many Chinese students go abroad now that it's become much more competitive."

The rise in Chinese enrollment at Iowa's universities has been mirrored by an increase in American students studying Chinese, Ganim said. The growth in both groups has allowed for more cultural exchange opportunities.

"Having more Chinese students on campus naturally raises awareness of Chinese culture," he said. "More and more students are becoming interested in China and Chinese language and there are more opportunities for conversation partnerships and activities."

China now ranks ahead of France and Germany in popularity of study abroad programs at UI, Thomas said.

He pointed to a new collaboration with Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, in which the two universities are sharing information both through research and teaching.

"Relationships like this are possible because there are resources now on both sides that we can match together to make things happen that benefit both universities," he said.

While many Chinese students make an effort to assimilate and mix with American students at ISU, a good number do not, Dorsett said.

"Right now, 54 percent of the international population is from China and some students will tend to take the path of least resistance," he said. "It's easy for Chinese students to find other Chinese students and end up not being forced to speak English all the time. It's understandable. This happens everywhere. There are times when you just don't want to speak another language, and you want the comforts of home. With more students like yourself around, it's easier to not push yourself if you don't have to."

Jessica James, an American pre-nursing student at UI, said that there is often a perception that there will be "compatibility issues" between American and Chinese students, she said.

"There's a good amount of Chinese students who feel most comfortable with other people who speak the same language or are from the same country, but I've also become good friends with some Chinese students who are really interested in our culture and want to learn English. And I've gotten to learn more about Chinese culture as well," she said.

But Rochelle Liu, a Chinese-American who recently graduated from UI, said that the language barrier often proves insurmountable.

"The majority of the Chinese students I know stick closely together," Liu said. "And those who try to integrate into American society find it difficult to connect with American students because of the cultural differences. Their cultures clash so much that it's difficult for them to comfortably settle into the UI community," she said.

Liu also reported that many American students who are not actively studying Chinese generally remain "disinterested" in Chinese culture.

One of the biggest problems for Chinese students adjusting to life in America is a simple lack of knowledge, Dorsett said. He pointed to Chinese students in the past who had driven vehicles without driver's licenses or a number of Chinese students who had gotten into physical altercations without thought of how an arrest might affect their immigration status.

UI offers social programming in a variety of topics that include dating etiquette to American holidays. It now also provides peer counselors for international students who are interested in talking with someone about more informal subjects, Thomas said.

As the Chinese population of students enrolled at universities in Iowa grows, the education experience can only become more dynamic, Dorsett said.

"To me, that is one of the main components of a good education," he said, "to not only learn from the classroom but to learn from the people around you."