Chinese students find niche at the 'U'

BY MICHELE NAROV
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 1, 2011

Engineering senior Wandi Lin’s adjustment to life in Ann Arbor wasn’t easy.

After traveling halfway around the world to pursue a dual degree at the University and at Shanghai University in China, Lin still had to learn the basics of American culture. Everything from the rules of American sports to small talk with classmates was unfamiliar.

Lin is one of thousands of Chinese students seeking a college degree in the United States.

During the 2009-2010 academic year, Chinese students became the largest population of international students studying in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report. Chinese enrollment increase of 29.9 percent last year, according to the report.

However, this national trend isn’t new to the University.

John Greisberger, director of the University’s International Center, said Chinese students have made up the majority of international students on campus for nearly a decade.

“There’s been a steady growth,” Greisberger said, “but it’s been at the top of our list for the last ten years.”

According to a Dec. 9 article in The Michigan Daily, there were 1,227 international Chinese students studying at the University during the 2008-2009 academic year — an increase of 227 students from the previous academic year.

Last year, the University ranked sixth in the nation for attracting international students, the Open Doors Report states. And the University was ranked first in the number of international students studying in the state, according to the report.

According to the report, 24.1 percent of international students in the state of Michigan are Chinese.

The University’s long history of accommodating international students has helped it establish a strong reputation abroad, Greisberger said.

“We’ve always had high numbers of international (Chinese) students,” Greisberger said. “Word spreads when people tell their friends and family.”

Lin said he chose to come to the University based on information from alumni.

“A lot of people study at Michigan, and they give positive feedback,” Lin said. “We all agree that it is a great place for us to study and explore life.”

Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor of the Institute of International Education, wrote in an e-mail interview that as education becomes more accessible to students in countries like China and India, these nations face difficulty in accommodating the growing number of undergraduates. For students coming to the United States from these countries, Peggy wrote, that America offers hands-on research opportunities and alternative teaching approaches.

“It’s not rote learning; it’s much more interdisciplinary and participatory and stresses critical thinking,” Blumenthal wrote.

Lin said getting an education in engineering abroad offers the opportunity to study more modern concepts.

“The quality of this education is better than many Chinese universities, so it’s good for me,” he said.

LSA and Business senior Chenli Zhu said she chose to study abroad because she thought it would lead to more future employment opportunities.

“I think this education is more valued in Asia than (going to) a university in (a student's) home country,” she said.

For these students looking for a high-quality education at a competitive price, the University is an optimal choice, Greisberger said.

But once students are on campus, they are often met by an overwhelming culture shock. As Lin pointed out, though his experience at the University has been positive, he said the challenge of acclimating was daunting.

In order to combat this obstacle, orientations and programs at the University help international students. And these programs reach beyond the walls of the International Center, Greisberger said.

“It really is a campus-wide effort. It’s not just one office working to make these students feel comfortable,” he said.

Additionally, many student organizations help to bridge the cultural gap that spans halfway around the world. Because of the large international Chinese population on campus, several clubs and groups have surfaced with an agenda that aids in the transition to life at an American university.

Groups including the Chinese Students Association, the Association for Chinese Economic Development, the China Entrepreneur Network and the Michigan China Fellows, help to form a strong community within the University that includes Chinese-American and international Chinese students.

Zhu, a member of the Association for Chinese Economic Development, said the organization succeeds in bringing students together.

“I think we build a strong close-knit group,” she said.

Lin works with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Alumni Association, which sponsors social events on the University of Michigan campus that bring students together and help them adjust to life abroad. To make students feel more comfortable with a new culture, the organization holds lectures on topics ranging from the rules of American football to where to dine out with friends.

“(American students) talk in different ways, and students cannot always get close with them and talk comfortably,” Lin said. “We use these activities to let Chinese students explore more with their foreign friends.”

The University also has a partnership with SJTU in the form of a Joint Institute in Engineering. The joint venture was created when University President Mary Sue Coleman went to China in 2005.

As part of other efforts to link the University to Chinese organizations, the University created a Confucius Institute in November 2009. The institute is one component of Coleman’s Task Force on China, which was started in 2005. The goal of the task force is to strengthen the connection between the University and China.

“Our relationship with China goes back so far, to (former University) President (James) Angell,” Coleman said in 2009, referring to Angell’s time in China from 1880-1881, when he took a hiatus from the University to be the U.S. minister to China.

Though some national media outlets have raised the concern that the large number of Chinese students in America is creating a “pipeline” system rather than an international network, Blumenthal wrote that she isn’t aware of any problems.

“While the number of students from China has grown rapidly, international students still make up a very small proportion of college and university students, so the U.S. system has the capacity for more international students, from China and elsewhere,” she wrote.

Though Greisberger acknowledged that no campus would want to be overly dependent on one country’s student population, he said it’s not a cause for concern at the University.

“It’s true that we have a large number of Chinese students, but we have a lot of students from other areas as well,” he said.

Overall, the influx of Chinese students contributes to the United States’s national agenda of building global networks, according to Blumenthal.

“Many linkages and collaborative research efforts are emerging from linkages between American and Chinese higher education institutions,” she wrote.

Blumenthal wrote that the feedback from campuses across the country has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The Chinese students that come to the U.S. are the best of the best,” she wrote. “And they help to internationalize U.S. classrooms.”

International students offer a global experience to members of the American population who are unable to travel abroad, Greisberger said.

“You can benefit from a world perspective while staying right here on campus,” he said.