The University of China at Illinois

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enrolled 37 undergraduates from China in 2000. Now it has close to 3,000. What are the implications of such a shift?

January 7, 2015
Elizabeth Redden
The quad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It would be hard to find a more iconic American campus than that of the University of Illinois's main campus here. On the unseasonably warm late October weekend when the homecoming football game is played, the trees have changed to their fall colors and the central quad is alive. Students wearing orange Illinois gear crisscross it. Three young women who do not lack for pep pose for pictures, their arms arched into the shape of an I, an L, another L. One of those tightrope-like slacklines that have become ubiquitous on college campuses is strung between two trees.

Couples snooze, families walk dogs, a child rides piggyback. A group of revelers, possibly students, possibly young alumni, traverse the quad with an air of purpose: one clutches a Bud Light in an orange cozy, while another announces to anyone within a 20-foot radius that she really needs to pee. Toward the end of the weekend, on Sunday afternoon, an all-male a cappella group called the Xtension Chords gives a concert in front of the student union, concluding with a performance of “I Love Illinois” sung to the tune of “I Love Rock N’ Roll” (sample lyrics: “Wisconsin’s got no class/And Indiana can kiss my a…”).

Outside the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign, miles of corn and soybean fields spread as far as the eye can see. The university’s nickname in China, I’m told, translates roughly as “village of corn.”

That's not an idle fact. UIUC enrolls nearly 5,000 students from China, more than any other U.S. university. Nationally, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. has risen fivefold since 2000 – driven by a big increase in the number of Chinese students going overseas for their undergraduate degrees – but even against that backdrop of growth the expansion of the Chinese student population at Illinois’s public flagship university has been remarkable: a university that enrolled just 37 undergraduates from the People’s Republic in 2000 enrolls 2,898 today. Nearly a tenth of this fall’s freshman class – 684 students – hail from China. There are more freshmen from China than there are, combined, from 48 of the 50 states, all save for Illinois and California.

Even at the graduate level, where there was a larger base to begin with, UIUC’s Chinese student enrollment has more than tripled, from 649 in 2000 to 1,973 this fall.

The 4,898 Chinese students make up the largest group of international students on Illinois’s campus, followed distantly by students from South Korea (1,268 this fall) and India (1,167).

What is the impact of such a shift? What happens when a classic American university in the heartland is better known in Beijing than in Boston, in Tianjin than in Tucson?

Some effects are easy to quantify: increased demand from international students who have needs that differ from those of their American peers at the writing center, the career services center, the counseling center, etc. The university has responded to the increased numbers of students from China in myriad ways small – tweaking rice cookery methods in the dining halls, offering a shuttle service from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for arriving students – and significant: holding three pre-departure orientations in China, hiring more Mandarin-speaking staff.

But there are other changes that are more qualitative – namely, the implications of an increasingly international undergraduate population for the academic experience and the impact on student life. With the increase of international undergraduate students across the nation, leaders of U.S. universities invariably say they welcome the worldly perspectives these students bring to the classroom and the dorm room even as their pursuit of ever-larger numbers of them has been criticized as a form of profiteering (international students themselves tend to be cognizant of their financial importance for the university and the higher tuition rates they pay). How much cross-pollination of perspectives is really happening at a place like Illinois? Is much happening by way of meaningful interactions between Chinese and American students or are members of both groups, by and large, indifferent?

Adapting to Life in the U.S.

UIUC’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) provides a home away from home for many of the university’s Chinese students. The organization is big and bureaucratic: it has nearly 300 officers and is subdivided into 14 branches: nine departments – dedicated to such duties as public relations, information technology and undergraduate and graduate student activities – and five clubs (a dance club, a photography club, a video club, a music club, and a news club that produces reports about the organization’s events). The CSSA hosts everything from information sessions with recruiters from Chinese companies to a basketball tournament to an annual dating game event modeled after the Chinese television show, “If You Are the One.” Its largest event is an annual gala to celebrate the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival featuring performances of kung fu, Chinese yo-yo, drama, singing, and dance.

“We’re trying to do everything, like picking up the incoming freshmen all the way through doing the events, trying to help them to find a date,” says David Sun, CSSA’s president (the organization had its own shuttle service for picking up incoming Chinese students at the airport well before the university initiated an official transport option this past fall). On homecoming weekend, CSSA sponsored a dance event in the student union in which snazzily dressed Chinese students danced the tango. The night’s proceedings were mostly in Mandarin save for the instructions given by the dance teacher, who had given two prior lessons so students could prepare for the evening’s formal.

“[CSSA] can provide our students with a family and it can also provide our members with opportunities, both opportunities for leadership and opportunities for adapting to life here,” says Shiyan Zhang, a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering who directed this fall’s Moon Gala.  

Zhang, who earned her undergraduate degree at Tsinghua University, a top technical university in Beijing, is an example of the type of Chinese student that American universities have long been accustomed to attracting: academically elite students studying at the graduate level. By contrast, Sun, a senior actuarial science and statistics major from the seaside city of Dalian who attended an English-language high school with a British Columbian curriculum, is part of the new(-ish) wave of Chinese students coming to the U.S. at the undergraduate level.

At a Starbucks on Green Street in Champaign, Sun discusses the adjustment process for Chinese students. “Coming to the United States, we all know it’s culturally different, we all know it’s a totally different language. Before coming to the United States, Chinese students may wonder what life here would be [like]. Reality may be different from Hollywood movies.”

“They need a lifestyle, they need a new lifestyle, it’s definitely not the old one in China, but it might not be the purely American way either, and it’s up to everyone himself or herself.”

Asked what he means by “new lifestyle,” Sun elaborates. What friends you make: that’s the most important, he says. “Are you going to make American friends, Chinese friends or a mixture?”

Other key questions for Chinese students, as he sees it: “Are you going to just study every day or take some social life?”

“Are you going to continue working here or just go back to China after graduation?”

“And also which food are you going to eat?” Sun pauses. “I hate dining hall,” he adds, unprompted. I tell him about a conversation I had with the head of university housing and dining, Alma R. Sealine, in which she told me that the chefs are trying to improve the ways they cook rice – six different types of it – in response to Chinese student comments. “They’re trying,” I say.

Sun thinks that’s funny. ”That was a comment I made! Last semester there was a student panel and they asked, ‘One thing you want to change, what’s that going to be?’ I said, ‘The rice. Don’t cook brown rice. Please, white rice.’ ”

“I said to them, ‘During the past 19 years of my life in China, I’ve never, ever eaten brown rice. No.’ ”

Zhang cuts in. “Me neither. Me neither. “

“Coming here and seeing the brown thing there and it looked like rice, and I tried once, never twice,” Sun says.

“I used to think it was some kind of fried rice,” says Zhang.

Sun: “But the taste.”

“It’s healthier,” I offer.

Sun: “Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.”

I return to the point Sun started with about making Chinese or American friends: Is there a big gap between the two groups of students, I ask? “Definitely,” Sun responds.

“They eat brown rice and we eat white rice,” Zhang says. She is joking, but the metaphor is not unapt.

“There’s definitely a gap but I’ll say it’s up to you how to view it,” says Sun. He describes one woman he knows who spent time trying to forge deep friendships with Americans as a freshman only to decide, in her sophomore year, that “it’s not worth it.”   

“To fit into the American culture better, to know more American people, she actually abandoned herself from the Chinese society, I mean, from the local Chinese society, so she didn’t really make a lot of Chinese friends here.”

“I think a lot of international students here, they have this idealized vision of what their American life is going to be and what really touched me is they described this gigantic gap between what they wanted it to be and what reality was.”
--Amy Lin

“She tried to make real friends, real American friends -- not people who just say hi or people who just grab a drink or a coffee, she tried to make it something deep -- but if you want to do this, it’s hard to have it both ways. When it comes to a very deep level, it’s hard,” Sun says.

“But it’s different. I know people who could manage it a little bit better. And also I see Americans who speak Mandarin trying to make Chinese friends.”

The Idea of ‘Integration’

In 2013, UIUC created the position of director of international student integration. Nicole Tami, an anthropologist whose dissertation research focused on tourism in Kenya, took on the role.

With the growth of international students at U.S. universities nationally, the issue of their "integration" -- or lack thereof -- into the general student body has taken on increasing urgency. But while "integration" has become a buzzword of sorts, some academics and professionals in international education resist the term -- perhaps, I speculate in a conversation with Tami, because it seems too closely aligned with "assimilation" and that word's negative connotations. I ask her how she defines the term.

“I think integration is a very personal choice and I see it as part of a very vast spectrum,” Tami responds.  “On one end is certainly assimilation and I think some people definitely mean that when they say integration. The other end of that, I might use a word like inclusion or engagement.”

“I think to what degree someone integrates and where they put themselves on the spectrum depends on a variety of things, including, first and foremost, what their goals are for the experience. Are they looking at this as an extended study abroad experience with the intention of going home and working back in South Korea or China or South Africa or Spain or what have you? Or are they looking to work in the United States?”

“The other thing is the student’s personality: where they come from, what their family structure was like, are they introverted, are they extroverted, how linguistically competent do they feel? All of those sorts of things are going to determine to what degree a student wants to integrate, what sorts of opportunities that they’ve had even, within another context, to step outside of a safe zone and take a moment to flail a little bit as they find their new sense of normal. You have those folks who are more adventurous who will go backpacking and you have those folks who prefer the guided tour, even in the touristic sector,” Tami says.

“I feel like my job is to create programming, to create resources, to educate folks who are going to be working with and serving international students, to help them understand that our job is to facilitate but is not to dictate, push or demand any type or level of inclusion. Now I would encourage our international students to get as involved as they can in the same way that I would encourage domestic students who are going to study abroad to get the most out of the experience.”

Tami teaches a course for American students who have returned from study abroad. Their most common regret, she says, is not stepping more out of their comfort zone; they wish, say, they had spoken Spanish or Italian more, interacted with the locals more, but it was hard.

“I’m sure we have international students who are in that camp as well,” Tami says. ”They come, it’s hard, maybe they’ve encountered a couple of socially awkward moments, and they think, why bother? There’s 5,000 other students here from my home country.  I mean, hello, that’s a pretty big social network, and what we forget is even within that network they are stepping outside of boundaries. China’s a huge country. They are meeting people from other provinces, they are meeting people that speak other Mandarin dialects. They are meeting students from Hong Kong and from Taiwan who they might not have met back home and they’re encountering politics that are very, very different.”

But for those international students who truly do want to reach beyond their comfort zone, is the promise of an American higher education falling short?

Amy Lin, a senior psychology major from Illinois, co-founded a student organization known as the Intercultural Community Development Initiative that’s dedicated to building cross-cultural connections between domestic and international students at UIUC. After coming back from two experiences abroad herself – a summer in China and a semester in Paris – Lin began volunteering with an English conversation practice group known called English Corner, where she got to know more international students.

“I myself identify as Asian American so I never really gave a second thought about the Asian internationals -- we look so similar but our culture is vastly different -- but by me going to another country I realized how difficult it is to actually be included into a completely different community," Lin says.

“I think a lot of international students here, they have this idealized vision of what their American life is going to be and what really touched me is they described this gigantic gap between what they wanted it to be and what reality was,” she explains. “A lot of international students, they think they’re going to be here and be very American, make a lot of friends with American students, but I think besides language barriers there’s also this cultural aspect. Eastern cultures are a little bit more collectivist; it’s not in their habit to just go up to someone and say hi.”

“A lot of times they believe American students will think, 'Oh this is cool, there’s an international student here, let me say hi to them,' but that kind of thing doesn’t really happen.”

“I’ve had an international student tell me in the past, ‘All of my friends are Chinese and I hate it,' " says Lin (the friend was Chinese).

That said, Lin continues, because the international students end up hanging out together, that creates the perception on the part of American students that international students are an exclusive group.  “There’s that cycle: international students are really shy about approaching American students, American students don’t really want to approach international students … and that makes international students clump together and domestic students think, 'Oh they want to be friends with one another, they don’t want to be friends with us.' ”

The domestic students I encountered in reporting this article ranged from being, like Lin, eager to foster connections with international students to being self-avowedly neutral on the topic. One said that international students just aren't involved in the activities she's a part of, including her sorority. One raised the issue – adding he didn’t know much about it – of whether international students are crowding out students from Illinois (more on this below).

More worrisomely, Grace Kwon, a senior creative writing major from the Chicago suburbs, tells me that she has witnessed “some very inappropriate or offensive mannerisms” toward international students.  She has friends who aren’t international – they’re Asian American – but they’ve heard pointed comments on the street like “the library’s that way” (a statement that presumably rests on the stereotype of Asians as studious). Kwon, who is Korean American, says she’s been called the slur “Ching Chong.” (It was at Illinois last winter where frustration at Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s refusal to call a snow day led to a storm of racist and sexist Twitter attacks; Wise is Asian American.) 

“If you walk around campus, you can hear people say, 'Why are there so many Chinese students?' ” Kwon relates. “[They say] why are they speaking Chinese so loudly?”

Administrators don’t doubt the existence of racial tensions on campus. “I think there’s everything from microaggressions to outright blatant racist commentary or actions, I’m sure,” says Tami, the director of international student integration. That said, she continues, “I think the goodwill here is huge, I really do, on the part of staff and faculty but also on the part of students. Mostly what I hear is that people are genuinely nice and friendly, especially here in the campus community, or just sort of indifferent.”

“The tails of the bell curve are what make the news, those who are opposed to it or those who just can’t wait to have an international roommate,” says A. Bryan Endres, the interim associate provost of international affairs.

“Most students are open to it but there’s also a hesitancy about how do you reach out and make new friends in any sort of context,” Endres says. “Also, we don’t want to force things. Then it looks like just another top-down administrative initiative. We need to encourage but not force and make sure that it really does happen at a genuine level through quality programs.”

Nancy A. Abelmann, the associate vice chancellor for research and the Harry E. Preble Professor of Anthropology, Asian American Studies, and East Asian Languages and Cultures is part of a research team that has interviewed dozens of domestic and international students at Illinois about their interactions with and perceptions of one another.

Abelmann says that compared to South Korean students (formerly the biggest group of international students at Illinois), Chinese students as a group seem to be less concerned about making American friends. The attitude on the part of both American and Chinese students was, as Abelmann relates it, “whatever: if I become friends with a Chinese student or vice versa an American student that’s great, but I’m not really going out of my way for it.”

“If you walk around campus, you can hear people say, why are there so many Chinese students?”
--Grace Kwon

“We played a lot with the word indifferent,” says Abelmann, who explains that there was “no animus, but no particular interest either.”

Abelmann suggests that the old paradigm of integration “in which everyone becomes friends isn’t where we’re at in the world right now with so much globalization and movement. Maybe that’s really an older model that doesn’t quite fit.”

Abelmann and her research team are playing with a new paradigm centered around the idea of civility. “When people hear indifference they think it’s bad, but you can be civil and not necessarily be great friends or pals," she says.

Meeting Students’ Needs

Abelmann’s research team also found that faculty members at UIUC felt unprepared for the rapid increase in international students. “A lot of universities had meetings to discuss whether to bring international students, whether not to," she says. "A lot of public universities, even our peers, were worrying about a few hundred [students], and we just went to thousands without any input from anybody except for the higher-ups. I think a lot of faculty feel like, 'Huh, when did this happen? And why did it happen and what is the university doing to worry about these students?' ”      

Tami says a lot of the supports international students need are already in place at a large research university like Illinois. “It’s the capacity that’s been our greatest challenge,” she says. “We have the writing center, we have folks who are trained to work with ESL [English as a Second Language] writers, we have counselors who speak not just Mandarin but Spanish, we have career centers that are starting to think about how to serve international students who won’t necessarily be working in the United States.

"Again, our numbers are so large that even with all of those resources we may not always be able to accommodate everybody at the same time. So I think that will continue to be a challenge. We’re improving because individual units and colleges have been and are starting to realize that they need to be attentive to this demographic and they may need some different things than our domestic students. In some cases it’s the same – good teaching practices, solid study skill resources, solid career resources. Those are not necessarily unique to international students.”

There are all kinds of initiatives happening on the sprawling and decentralized campus, in academic and non-academic units alike: workshops for support staff on intercultural communication, a one-credit applied communication course intended to help international students navigate the academic and social environment at UIUC, an enrichment academy in the business school that targets international students as well as first-generation students and members of underrepresented minority groups for special events like an etiquette dinner.

The office of inclusion and intercultural relations sponsored an "intercultural dialogue series" focused on China this past fall. In the career services office, the visiting assistant director, Un Yeong Park, has created a certificate program for international students interested in pursuing a career in the U.S. and compiled resources on companies that have hired international students for their temporary work authorization periods. The athletics department joined with the International Student and Scholar Services office to host a “Football 101” event for international students early in the fall. A three-part video series for incoming international students, titled Journey to Illinois, is available online; the housing office has also created an online glossary of common housing-related terms for international students. (Sealine, the director of university housing, says the most common question posed by parents at the in-country orientations in China was “tell me about the linens -- what does it mean to have an extra-long twin?”)

International students at the Football 101 event. Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“In all areas, we’re really scrambling to meet the needs of this growing international population and Chinese population,” says Renée Romano, the vice chancellor for student affairs.

“It’s all very positive. We think we can really benefit from this; we just have to keep up with it and make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the students,” she says.

“I first came to Illinois in the mid-'90s. In most of the classes, almost none of the undergraduates were from China,” says Poshek Fu, a professor of history and Asian American studies at Illinois. “There were a lot from Korea, and some from Taiwan, and that’s it, but now it’s completely changed the whole dynamics of some classes because there are so many students from China, especially in engineering and business programs. It’s a little less obvious in humanities and social sciences, but even there, in some of the general courses, like Intro to East Asian Cultures, almost half or two-thirds of students are from China.”

Last spring Fu taught a 200-level course, an introduction to modern China. Nearly four-fifths of students were from there. “I was so surprised, I had to change all my lectures,” says Fu, who has grown accustomed to teaching students from the Chicago suburbs who in many cases don’t know much about East Asia. (Fu is not the only one to note the significance of this change as it relates to courses focused on Asia: Gary G. Xu, the head of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, has charged a committee to consider potential curricular changes in light of the new demographics of the department’s introductory classes.)

Fu says that he would like to see the university be more proactive in initiating campuswide conversations about the ways in which the growth of international undergraduate students has implications for curriculum and pedagogy. That, and the integration issue: "I see a lot of Chinese students just by themselves.”

Even in the College of Engineering, which has long had a large international graduate population, it's a relatively new phenomenon to have large numbers of international undergraduates: “I think because of the large [international] graduate population, we were used to having a certain mix and also our faculty is very diverse,” says Umberto Ravaioli, the senior assistant dean and director of undergraduate student affairs in the engineering college.

“Myself, I’m from Italy, and although we are in the middle of cornfields, we are a very cosmopolitan area. But definitely something is a little bit different in the classroom. You have more language barriers to overcome so faculty need to be more patient with international students. There are cultural issues. Probably the thing we are paying most attention to are academic integrity issues. The standards for plagiarism or collaboration on an assignment may be different in other countries. We have put a lot of emphasis on needing to educate this influx of international students that academic integrity is very important here.” 

How are international undergraduate students faring academically across the university? Retention and graduation rates for international undergraduate students at UIUC are somewhat lower than the university’s overall averages. For first-time, full-time freshmen starting in 2013, the overall first-to-second-year retention rate was 93.5 percent compared to 91 percent for international students (international women were retained at a higher rate – 96.5 percent – than international men, at 88.2 percent). For students who entered in the fall of 2008, the overall six-year graduation rate was 84.1 percent, while the rate for international students was 73.6 percent. 

A Changing Student Body

What’s behind the rapid rise in Chinese students at U.S. universities? A growing Chinese middle class; a one-child policy that means that Chinese parents and grandparents are able to pool their resources to pay for a single child’s education. And a demand on the part of American universities for the tuition dollars Chinese students bring.

“At the root of this, really, is the financial pressures and the fact that the U of I did not cultivate a domestic out-of-state student body,” says Abelmann. “We did not have a domestic out-of-state student body ready when we needed more out-of-state tuition.” 

That said, Illinois hasn’t had to take some of the shortcuts to increasing its international student enrollment that many other, less well-known universities have. Officials at UIUC say they do not work with commissioned recruiting agents. They do not offer conditional admission or pathway programs for students whose English skills don’t qualify them for direct admission.

The increase in international students, says Charles Tucker, the vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation, is a result of more of them applying – “a lot more, especially a lot more from China.”

“We do some international recruiting, but in China it’s very modest,” says Tucker, who oversees the enrollment management office. “We think that the university has a very strong reputation in China and that international students in general and Chinese students in particular tend to look a lot at ranking as an indicator of reputation, and if you look at something like the Shanghai Jiao Tong [global] ranking, you’ll see that Illinois tends to do even better there than in something like U.S. News and World Report. That’s really brought us a lot of interest from Chinese students and other students around the world.” The Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking of universities rates Illinois as 28th among all research universities in the world and ranks its engineering program – a big draw for international students -- fourth.

As the proportion of international students at Illinois has increased, the proportion of state residents has decreased: in this year’s freshman class, 71.7 percent of students are from Illinois, compared to 89 percent in 2006. In absolute numbers, there are 1,411 fewer Illinois freshmen on campus now than then.

From these numbers one could conclude that international students are displacing students from Illinois, but it may be more complicated than that. Illinois, like many states in the Midwest and Northeast, is experiencing a decrease in the size of its local college-aged population. Further, “if you look at the number of students from Illinois that we admit, it’s changed very little over the last 10 years,” says Tucker. “So what we are seeing is a gradual decrease in yield, the percentage of admitted students who enroll from in-state, and we’re very concerned about that, and we work hard to do better at that. We believe it’s primarily driven by financial considerations” – namely, rising tuition rates. 

Admissions statistics provided by Tucker show that the percentage of Illinois first-time freshman applicants admitted has actually increased in recent years: from 62.6 percent in 2006 to 68.5 percent in 2014. At the same time, with the growing interest from overseas, admissions have become more selective for domestic students from outside Illinois and international students alike: the acceptance rate for domestic non-Illinois residents dropped from 74.8 percent in 2006 to 66.1 percent in 2014, while the acceptance rate for international students almost halved, from 66.1 to 37.1 percent.

International students pay tuition and fees that are nearly twice as high as those paid by Illinois students (undergraduate tuition and fee rates range from $31,000-$38,000 for international students compared to $15,600-$20,600 for Illinois residents). Illinois does not collect data on the financial background of international students, who are ineligible for federal financial aid and therefore typically don't fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA; Tucker says that since all institutional need-based scholarships are pegged to the FAFSA, international students are not receiving any of that aid. They could be eligible for some institutional merit scholarships, but Tucker says he is not aware of any scholarship programs targeting international students.  

An article last fall in the Champaign News-Gazette contrasted the increase in full fee-paying international students with the decline in the number of African-American students, who make up just under 5 percent of all students on campus. Tucker says the university is working actively to increase the number of African Americans on campus – he says that administrators are "very disappointed" that the university attracted fewer African-American students this year than last -- even as he notes that Illinois is the leader among very selective universities in enrolling students from the (majority-minority) Chicago Public Schools (per the latest figures, released in December, the top four-year universities enrolling graduates from the Chicago Public Schools are the University of Illinois at Chicago, followed by Northeastern Illinois University, and then the state’s flagship, UIUC).

“There are a lot of dimensions to diversity on campus,” Tucker says. “One of the really important experiences that our students have when they come to a residential campus like this for a bachelor’s degree is they get to spend time working with, studying with, playing with people who are different from them. That’s true whether you came from Shanghai or Naperville [a Chicago suburb]. I think it’s better for Illinois students to have students from other states, students from other countries, students from other races and ethnicities and family incomes and walks of life; I think that enhances everybody’s education.”

Wenrui Chen, a Ph.D. student in communications from Guangzhou, has observed the rise of students from Asia over her seven years at Illinois. “Obviously it’s financial issues; the university is trying to cash in, at least partially, to deal with the financial crisis,” she says, noting that the “diversity” argument for recruiting foreign students seems like mere rhetoric when the number of African-American students has fallen.

Chen looks through my print-outs of enrollment statistics that show a more than 7,000 percent increase in the number of Chinese undergraduates at Illinois since 2000. It’s hard for her to look at this ratcheting-up and not ask critical questions about the university’s rationale. “[The students] are paying full tuition, not to mention room and board, and China is not a very rich country; actually it’s a very poor country," she says, noting that while many Chinese students who study overseas come from wealthy families, others come from the working class. 

“I’ve actually met many of these kinds of students and they’ve told me, ‘I’m studying accounting because I have to earn my tuition back,’ ” Chen says.

The issue of class is often a subtext in discussions of Chinese students. It’s of course not surprising that many Chinese students who are able to afford an undergraduate education in the U.S. come from wealthy families – some quite wealthy. National and local media periodically report on how tickled luxury car dealers are to have Chinese students as their clients: see, for articles of this genre, Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Chinese Students Major in Luxury Cars” and MLive’s piece on Michigan State University,  "Luxury cars on campus: Chinese students at MSU flock to BMWs, Maseratis, other high-end autos.”

At Illinois, one joke I heard is that during the day the engineering parking lot is a sea of Hondas and Subarus – the faculty members’ cars – while at night it fills up with the BMWs and Mercedes driven by Chinese undergraduates. The increase in Chinese students at Illinois has also without a doubt contributed to a boom in off-campus housing construction – much of it higher-end – in Champaign.  

But that doesn’t mean that every Chinese student is rich or that some aren’t coming to the U.S. at a significant financial sacrifice. Key to the value proposition is the edge -- and income advantage -- provided by an overseas degree in a notoriously tough Chinese job market.

Yet a December article in Shanghai Daily reported that the income gap between those who earn their undergraduate degrees in China and those who return after studying overseas is narrowing. A U.S. degree doesn’t mean as much now, says Fu, the professor of history: every year when he travels to China he says he hears people debating, “Is it worth all the money to go to the U.S. to get a degree? Is it better to stay in China" and develop their networks and gain experience there?

Jiayi Li, a senior history major from Shenzhen, came to Illinois to study history, saying that when it comes to the humanities, he thinks it’s important to understand as many perspectives as possible: he observes, for example, that “we do not teach Marxism and socialism as intensely in the U.S. as in China.” (Just last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted in state media calling for tighter ideological controls on university campuses and saying that the country’s universities must “shoulder the burden of learning and researching the dissemination of Marxism.") 

Li, who spent his final year of high school as an exchange student in New Jersey, would like to study the history of international relations or comparative history at the graduate level in the U.S. At Illinois he started two student organizations --- a campus chapter of Global China Connection, which tries to offer a platform for American and Chinese students to socialize, and the China Studies Forum, which hosts weekly discussions on current events in China. He is interested in the impact of Chinese students coming to the U.S. not just on U.S. campuses but also on Chinese society.

Li believes the enrollment of large numbers of Chinese students at U.S. universities will indeed have an influence on Chinese society – at least to a point. “At least they spend four years here in America and I think definitely they’re going to get a chance at least to tell their family back home, to tell their friends back home, what the real America is. But I don’t think that necessarily will change something like political orientation, something like their core values. I think that’s hard to change."

"For intercultural communication, we should not try to teach each other to adopt our own values, but rather mutual respect of difference is more important."

In an interview, Li emphasizes the diversity of the Chinese student population at Illinois: personally, financially, even politically speaking.

“The Chinese student community, we are so diverse, we have so many personal choices, we have so many issues to face,” he says. “The integration of the whole Chinese student community into American society is kind of impossible. However, that American experience will influence every individual who studied here. And this experience will be by and large beneficial, regardless of the integration."


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