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Political Rancor Feels Old to America's Youth

student volunteers help out at a booth to encourage on campus voting for students during a Vote for Our Lives event at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. in 2018.
student volunteers help out at a booth to encourage on campus voting for students during a Vote for Our Lives event at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. in 2018.

Young people watching the rancor between political parties and among average Americans say they do not expect it to get better anytime soon.

“No one seems to want to listen to the other side, and it’s halting any possible progress that could be made otherwise in terms of finding out how best to run the country and what would make the most people happy,” said Christopher Charles Laverde, 22, who writes for the popular anime YouTube channel We the Celestials.

Among Gen Zers (18 to 24 years old), three-quarters said they felt the United States is more divided than before, according to More in Common, an organization that focuses on building “more united, inclusive and resilient societies in which people believe that what they have in common is stronger than what divides them,” according to their website.

In More in Common’s poll, nearly half said they believe the U.S. will remain in the same state of division in 2021, while 36% said they believe the United States will be less united. Far fewer — 17% — said they believe the United States will be more united.

“It's important to keep having these conversations,” said Noelle Malvar, a senior researcher at More in Common, in a video interview. “And [Gen Z] likes messages that speak to this idea that democracy and justice are things to keep working on.”

“For example, they know that addressing inequality, or fighting for justice takes time, and that this needs to be thought about,” she said.

More in Common’s research showed that 60% of young people polled said racial equality was the most important issue for them, with health care and the cost of education being subsequent issues.

In June, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found in their research that the environment, racism and affordable health care were the top three issues driving youth in the 2020 elections.

“Getting back to normal after the pandemic and police mistreatment also ranked highly,” CIRCLE reported.

Americans of all ages see more conflict than they did in the past two presidential election cycles, according to a Pew Research poll published in March.

Among young people, 18 to 29 in particular, more than 70% said rifts between Republicans and Democrats are very strong, Pew reported. In the same survey, 23% of young people said rifts between these two groups are strong, while 4% called the rifts not very strong between the parties.

Kahnika Mehra is an English and communications major at the University of Maryland who interns at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Kahnika Mehra)
Kahnika Mehra is an English and communications major at the University of Maryland who interns at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Kahnika Mehra)

Kahnika Mehra is an English and communications major at the University of Maryland who interns at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. She said she sees an increase in political polarization on social media.

“I find current conversations [between Republicans and Democrats] so dysfunctional and toxic,” she said in an interview with VOA.

Young people do not feel good about the divide. Less than half — 44% — of students said they feel proud to be an American, Chegg and College Plus reported.

Jacob Ehlers, 27, said his family has been divided by political rifts.

“My distant Republican relatives were already pretty bad when Obama was first elected but they got worse with the Tea Party, and then when [President Donald] Trump came around, it became unbearable. We couldn't have a normal discussion anymore,” Ehlers said.

Days before the election, Reuters news agency reported about families cleaved by political discord. When a mother from Milwaukee told her son she was voting for Trump because she aligned with his views on immigration, he said he was disowning her.

Christopher Charles Laverde, 22, who writes for the popular anime YouTube channel We the Celestials. (Courtesy Christopher Charles Laverde)
Christopher Charles Laverde, 22, who writes for the popular anime YouTube channel We the Celestials. (Courtesy Christopher Charles Laverde)

“This divide is affecting people’s mental and physical health because there’s so much fear-mongering going on,” Laverde said. “It feels like there’s going to be another war in America and no matter who wins, we're all going to end up losing in the long run.”

Laverde added, “Not to mention, however the virus situation goes, and any number of things really,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It's not hard to provoke the public.”

According to a study by the Healthy Minds Network, depression in 2019 increased among young people. Between March and May 2020, a higher proportion of students reported that their mental health negatively affected their academic performance, compared with the year before.

Yafei Zhao, a journalism major at the University of Maryland College Park, lived in the Shandong province on the northeast coast of China before moving to the United States in 2013. He said he hopes polarizing partisanship in the United States will go away, but said this is unlikely.

“I feel like we should all unite together as a nation and as a country because our differences are what makes us stronger,” Zhao said.

“I think political disagreement is a natural part of any free society. Yet in recent years, the partisan divide has continued to grow larger,” said Shehryar Haris, a master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington. Haris was born in Karachi and grew up in Dubai.

“Populist tides have largely overtaken the discourse, which is dangerous,” she said. “But the American political and legal systems are designed in such a way to ensure checks and balances that allow government to resist these growing populist waves.”

Justin Young, 25, said he remains optimistic about the future and how conflicts will be resolved.

“I hope that people can look beyond cheap externalities when listening to a message,” Young said. “This, however, will not be a short and simple process. Especially with world issues. ... It’s going to take years and a concerted effort to make Americans un-partisan again.”

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Decline of American students in China could mean fewer experts

FILE - A view of a portion of the campus of Wuhan University in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, April 11, 2020. The number of American students studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years.
FILE - A view of a portion of the campus of Wuhan University in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, April 11, 2020. The number of American students studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years.

The number of Americans studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years from around 11,000 in 2019 to 800 this year, and the slump is so bad that some China scholars worry the United States could lose a generation of "China experts" as a result.

David Moser, an American who has lived and worked in China for more than three decades and is the former academic director of China Educational Tours (CET) in Beijing, said that “I haven’t seen an American student in years.”

CET, which was launched in 1982, is a Washington-based organization that recruits American students for short-term language and culture studies in China. Moser said that his position as academic director recently went away and that the organization continues to struggle to get more students to return to China.

CET once carried out short-term study-abroad programs in several cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Harbin and Hangzhou. Now, the program is only available in Beijing and Shanghai. Harbin's page on the website shows that programs are "suspended until spring 2025."

"We have already lost a very crucial generation who would need to be continuing right now in China with studies or whatever,” Moser said, “so that 10 years from now, they would already be ... very experienced China hands [experts].”

During the 2011-12 school year, the number of American students in China was around 15,000. Since then, with Xi Jinping’s rise as China’s leader and growing frictions between the two countries, the number has declined, dropping dramatically after the pandemic to about 200 at its lowest point.

Loss of understanding

Moser said the lack of talented people who understand China is undoubtedly a huge loss for the United States.

"You really need people who understand the two academic systems, the two college systems, and the way these things work in order to not make a huge mistake,” he said.

Compared with China, however, CET's projects in Taiwan are in full swing.

Moser said CET started its first summer study abroad program at National Taiwan University in 2022, which attracted more than 120 American students. He said a program was set up in Taiwan because too few American students wanted to go to China.

He said he believed that starting around 2008, when Beijing held its first Olympics, China’s pollution and human rights violations turned some American students away, and that the trend has not reversed.

FILE - A Fudan University sign is seen on the campus in Shanghai, Dec. 18, 2019.
FILE - A Fudan University sign is seen on the campus in Shanghai, Dec. 18, 2019.

China's strict lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic was also a crucial turning point. At that time, many foreigners, including American students, left China. After the Chinese government suddenly lifted the lockdown at the end of 2022, most foreigners did not immediately return.

China's increasingly aggressive posture on the international stage under Xi, and its hostile propaganda against the West at home, is likely to have prevented foreign talents from visiting China for cultural and business exchanges.

A revised counterespionage law that took effect on July 1, 2023, has also made many Americans hesitant to travel to China, let alone study there.

As U.S.-China relations deteriorate, official academic exchanges have also been coldly received. Former U.S. President Donald Trump suspended all Fulbright exchange programs to China and Hong Kong in July 2020.

After the counterespionage law negatively affected China, the Chinese government sought to extend goodwill at the level of people-to-people exchanges. Xi announced during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in San Francisco in November 2023, "In order to expand exchanges between the people of China and the United States, especially the younger generation, China is willing to invite 50,000 American young people to come to China for exchanges and studies in the next five years."

High school students visit

In January 2024, more than 20 students from Muscatine High School in Iowa visited Beijing, Hebei and Shanghai. In March, 24 students from Lincoln High School and Steilacoom High School in Washington state also boarded a plane from San Francisco to Beijing.

Wenzhou University and Kean University in New Jersey signed an agreement to jointly establish Wenzhou-Kean University in May 2006. At the time, Xi was the party secretary of Zhejiang, home province of Wenzhou, and he attended the signing ceremony in 2006.

In a letter to Kean's president on June 7, Xi encouraged universities in the two countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation. However, three days later, four American teachers who were giving short-term courses at Beihua University in Jilin, China, were stabbed by a Chinese man. Chinese officials quickly deleted the relevant content on social media, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson called the incident an "accident" that would not affect relations between the two countries.

Meghan Burke, a former sociology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, said that although the attack on American teachers was a shocking and unexpected incident, she still hoped that it would not affect Americans' confidence in studying and traveling in China.

"I think it's always been there, but I think with the pandemic, there was some really racially loaded misinformation and fears that I wouldn't be surprised if that came into play in some students' and some families' decisions about where they were willing to go abroad," she said.

Asked about the 800 American students in China today, Burke said that was a big regret for the United States.

"Language is key to understanding culture. So, any limitations on learning Mandarin or other Chinese languages only hold back our ability to have a broader and more complex intercultural understanding and international perspective that I think benefits everyone who is involved in those conversations," Burke said.

In contrast, 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States.

"Asymmetry is bad for China, but it's much worse for the United States because asymmetry is in one direction, which is towards us,” Moser said. “The Chinese have very good knowledge of the U.S., of its culture, of its government, everything."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Campus protests cause some students to rethink US colleges

FILE - Students continue to maintain a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on the Columbia University campus April 24, 2024, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City.
FILE - Students continue to maintain a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on the Columbia University campus April 24, 2024, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City.

Campus protests at U.S. colleges, and the accompanying unrest and violence, are causing some international students to rethink their plans to study in the United States.

Writing in the Straits Times, Vihanya Rakshika reports that safety concerns are motivating parents to look elsewhere for their children’s higher education. (June 2024)

Which schools have biggest alumni networks?

FILE - In this March 14, 2019, photo, students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif.
FILE - In this March 14, 2019, photo, students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif.

In addition to considering the cost and reputation of a school, prospective students should consider alumni networks – connected graduates who can help with the job search once classes are complete.

Writing in University Magazine, Anwar Abdi takes a look at the 25 U.S. universities with the largest alumni networks. (June 2024)

Report: Number of college dropouts remains high

FILE - The name for the University of Southern California is displayed at a campus entrance in Los Angeles, April 16, 2024.
FILE - The name for the University of Southern California is displayed at a campus entrance in Los Angeles, April 16, 2024.

Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities is increasing, but the number of dropouts remains high, according to a report in the Chronicle of High Education.

Amanda Friedman writes that more former students are returning to school, but many want shorter-term programs, such as certificate programs. (June 2024)

Xi wants more exchanges between US, Chinese universities

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People, on April 26, 2024, in Beijing, China.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People, on April 26, 2024, in Beijing, China.

Mutual understanding between China and the United States can be improved by having more university exchanges between the two countries.

According to Bloomberg, Chinese President Xi Jinpin told Xinhua News Agency that exchanges could develop young ambassadors who understand both countries. (June 2024)

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