“If you’re going to San Francisco…”
“…be sure to wear flowers in your hair.” The above lyric was made famous by a 1967 song which topped the charts in the U.S., when San Francisco was at the cutting edge of the American counterculture movement.
Many decades before that, the traditional Chinese language name for San Francisco (旧金山) (literally “Old Gold Mountain”) was , for many Chinese, more or less synonymous with America itself. San Francisco was the gateway and first port of call for many if not most Chinese visitors, workers , and migrants during the 19th century.
In recent years, apart from skyrocketing numbers of tourists from the Chinese mainland, the other big influx of Chinese into the U.S. is students. The bulk of these are enrolled in college and university degree programs, but the numbers in secondary school are also growing quickly.
A new book, “Preparing to Study in the U.S.A.: 15 Things Every International Student Should Know” is highly recommended for students as well as parents considering post-secondary education in the U.S..
Although its 15 chapters include one on “admissions”, the focus of the book is primarily not the admissions process, but rather all the other issues which would-be exchange students should consider when selecting schools as well as preparing for life and study there.
Each chapter contains a “Frequently Asked Questions” section at the end, and the book is filled with useful advice and tips, some of which may come as a shock to readers in China.
For example, in the “Admissions” chapter: “Students should avoid agents or anyone who charges a fee. The free information and counselling provided by an EducationUSA adviser can help enormously.” (EducationUSA has branches in some 170 countries worldwide.) This will no doubt also come as unwelcome advice to the thousands of educational consultants and agents in China who are charging hefty fees – sometimes with added bonuses for success — to assist with admission into elite US colleges.
As the opening chapter explains, the U.S. has 4,700 colleges and universities. Despite the rapid growth in international student enrollment (up 72% since 2000), international students still represent only slightly more than 4% of the total nationwide enrollment of 21 million.
To put that in another way, international students are still a very small minority on any US college campus. This makes for a challenging social and cultural adjustment process for most of them.
Another big adjustment awaits in the classroom, given America’s tradition of liberal education, which strives to develop independent, critical thinking, innovation and problem-solving, questioning, debate and discussion. This is a far cry from what most Chinese students have experienced up to and including secondary school.
No discussion of US university education today can avoid the ferocity of the competition for admission to top schools. It’s no surprise, then, that half of the universities and colleges with the largest enrollment of international students are public (ie state schools) rather than private institutions. The only Ivy League school in the top 25 in terms of international student enrollment is Columbia.
(As an interesting piece of historical trivia, the chapter on US higher education points out that of the 8 Ivy League schools, all but one were founded when the US was still a British colony.)
There was explosive growth in post-secondary school enrollment in the U.S. from 1965-2000: up 265% , versus roughly 45% population growth during that period. From 5.92 million in 1965, the ranks of college students swelled to 15.31 million in 2000. That’s equivalent to roughly half the adult population of the U.S.
In recent years, roughly 25% of graduating U.S. high school seniors apply for 7 or more colleges or universities.
The book compares salient differences between state and private schools. It highlights some important aspects, including risks, of student life on campus.
The authors discuss the overwhelming importance of sports in campus life, and the impact it has on the student community, including the language of college sports, which is huge. Like it or not, this is something international students will confront and need to adjust to.
The American university with the largest enrollment of students from China on a single campus is The University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. With 4,500 Chinese students trying to cope with sports mania, the university has begun Chinese language broadcasts of the university’s football games. That’s a good start.
I fully understand the magnetic appeal of higher education in the U.S. for parents and students in the Chinese mainland with the resources to afford the relatively high costs (the average annual cost for a private 4-year college is US$42,419; and some range much higher than that).
At the same time, I’ve often wondered how newly arrived Chinese students cope with what is an enormously different cultural, social and academic milieu.
Understandably, many seem to stick together with other Chinese students, or other Asian students.
Books like this new one address a very important need: to help guide the process of selecting a school which is a good fit for the individual student, and offering some pointers on ways to prepare to adapt and adjust, avoiding pitfalls along the way.