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A Step Towards Finding Balance Between Chinese and American Students

Earlier this week we posted a video in which Chinese and American students talked candidly about some of the problems they encounter in forming relationships on campus. It generated a lot of discussion about the source of these tensions and what needs to be done about them. In this article, Qian looks at the situation on her own campus, discussing why such tensions are suddenly so prominent.

2/13 Reception
2/13 Reception
After spending a summer in Israel and the fall semester as an exchange student in Washington, D.C., I finally came back to Syracuse University to finish my last semester before graduation. However, walking around this campus that was once so familiar, I can see that one thing has changed rapidly – the presence of Chinese students.

Besides the fact that the library is nearly “occupied” by Chinese students, when I walk through campus, every few minutes I see a Chinese face or hear someone speaking Mandarin. In some engineering and finance classes, the majority of students are Chinese.

I was even shocked one day after having just finished talking to my friend on the phone in Chengdu dialect (a Chinese dialect used in the southwestern region of China, which is different from Mandarin), someone came over to me and asked, “Are you from Chengdu? I just recognized your dialect and I’m from there, too!

It’s not just my imagination. According to the Sluzker Center for International Services, the number of Chinese students entering SU as undergraduates has been rising rapidly in recent years. In 2004, SU accepted 37 Chinese students as undergraduates. This number increased to 68 in 2008, the year I entered SU, and continued climbing to nearly 150 in 2011.

This phenomenon has not only occurred at SU, but also in colleges all across the country. A report from the Institute of International Education showed that the number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education in 2010-11 was 157,558, 23% more than the previous year, and over 1/5 of all international students in the U.S.

Is It About Being Multi-cultural, or Is It About Money?

In some ways, it’s a win-win situation. With China’s economic boom, more families are willing to send their children to the U.S. for a “better education.” Meanwhile, American universities like to pursue a diverse and multicultural student body, and having more Chinese students on campus contributes to that environment.

But there’s another factor driving the desire to attract Chinese students as well. Facing budget cuts in recent years, U.S. universities, particularly public universities, have started enrolling record numbers of international students as a way to bolster finances. At public universities, international students pay the out-of-state tuition rate, which can be about double the rate for in-state American students. And among Chinese students in particular, wealthy families are able to pay full tuition without receiving financial aid from the university.

Some of the schools that are enrolling more Chinese students are facing criticism over concerns that money has become the major motivation rather than educating and promoting academic excellence. Some are worried that these schools are lowering their admission standards in order to attract more international students, or shutting out qualified American students in favor of less qualified international students.

It hasn’t helped alleviate these concerns that some colleges have found that Chinese students look more qualified on paper than they do when they arrive. There are agencies in China that help students get high TOEFL and SAT scores, fill out college applications for them, and send the students overseas ill-prepared to succeed in American colleges. In addition, several cases of Chinese students outrightly cheating on their applications have served to sully the reputation of the group as a whole.

Meanwhile, in China people are increasingly suspicious about the authority of American degrees, thanks to stories like that of Jun Tang, former president of Microsoft China Co. Ltd., who admitting to buying his doctoral degree from an American diploma mill for $3,000.

The Impact on Cross-cultural Relations

I’ve seen all of these different tensions play out at SU as the Chinese student population has increased. Both my Chinese and American friends have mixed feelings about the demographic change at our school.

Among my Chinese friends there are worries about the impact it will have on our reputation if Chinese students cheat their way into American schools and ruin it for the rest of us.

“I’m not so happy that SU’s ranking has been lowered from No.50 when I entered SU in 2008, to No.63 this year on US News with an overwhelming presence of Chinese students,” said a Chinese senior at SU. “I hope the school (would) only admit those who are prepared well and who are ready to come here.”

The influx of Chinese students has also caused the cultural divide between Chinese and American classmates to become more pronounced, as Chinese students find it easier to spend time with other Chinese students and American students feel like their own school is getting taken over.

As a result, I’ve noticed a lot more stereotypes being thrown around about Chinese students – that we spend all our time in the library, or that we’re quiet and meek, or that we don’t like sports (thank goodness for Jeremy Lin).

Diminishing Tensions by Improving the Admissions Process

It takes time to find a new balance where a long-established balance is being broken. In other words, it will take time to find a middle ground between the American students who say they are enjoying the multicultural environment and those complaining of feeling as if they are studying in China, and between the Chinese students excited about a bigger peer group and those upset about losing opportunities to make more American friends. Or between those who are in favor of more top, smart Chinese students coming to work in the U.S. and those who believe Chinese students take jobs from American students.

And schools will have to find balance between admitting more international students to make profits and maintaining the school’s academic standards (and its US News and World Report ranking).

Because while there is no doubt that SU has been providing exceptional education with very high quality, when there is suspicion about whether Chinese students deserve to be there, it brings all sorts of other tensions to the fore. To some extent, it is not the number but the quality of the Chinese students that has disappointed many people.

The admission process, especially for undergraduate students, should be based largely on the candidates’ qualifications instead of the ability to pay the full tuition. Measures such as on campus and Skype interviews could be taken to ensure each of the international students admitted meets with the standards of SU.

Just knowing that everyone who is here deserves to be here will go a long way to finding balance and building mutual respect.