A Shanghai native from a “family of big science nerds,” Gu was in high school when he decided that attending college in america was critical to his career plans, particularly after seeing family friends make their fortunes as investment bankers and high-tech entrepreneurs in the states. “i also liked the idea of being able to talk to faculty members, and learn other things while focusing on science,” he says.
Since the traditional campus driving tour was out of the question from 13 times zones away, Gu arrived at Macalester in the fall of 2007 knowing nothing more about the campus and its character than what he’d read in the U.S. college ranking book. With a late grandfather who had taught at the University of Minnesota during the 1970s, Gu says Minnesota wasn’t “a completely foreign concept,” but nearly everything else turned out to be.
While attending Mac’s orientation session for international students, Gu noticed he had “little common ground” with students from other countries, many of them seasoned globe-trotter graduates of the United World College system, “who seemed even more american than the americans I was meeting.” Good scores on the SaT and ToEFL didn’t do much for his pop culture currency, or make it possible to keep pace with conversation in classroom discussions. Boarding school in Shanghai had also left him unprepared him for american dorm life, where the partying and sometimes unstudious behavior he saw came as a shock. “That whole first semester was pretty miserable,” Gu recalls.
Four years later, Gu just wrapped up his last summer in St. Paul, leaving campus with a degree in chemistry and a series of department awards, a girlfriend from Texas, a resume with prestigious research experience at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, and a reputation as a bagpiper as he begins his graduate studies at the Massachusetts institute of Technology.
“He’s been one of our great success stories,” says Steve Colee, director of international admissions, who has closely followed Gu’s journey to see if it offers any clues about how colleges like Macalester can serve the fastest-growing demographic on college campuses—students from China.
China’s fast-growing export
In the four years since Gu arrived on campus, the enrollment of Chinese students at U.S. institutions has quadrupled. Fueled by a booming economy, a growing middle class, and demand for higher education that far outstrips their country’s available opportunities, Chinese students are now the largest contingent of international students at American colleges or universities, sending about 130,000 students to U.S. colleges last year. With relationships at leading high schools in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, Macalester has welcomed students from China for decades. But over the last five years, the admissions office has seen a new surge in applicants, many from the mainland. in 2006, just 76 Chinese students applied; in 2011, 271 students with Chinese citizenship sent applications—a new record for Macalester. This fall there are 57 students from China enrolled at Macalester, or approximately a quarter of the total international student enrollment.
“That’s why this trend has become one of the most talked-about issues in higher education,” says Colee, noting that the new influx of Chinese students has been a boon to many colleges eager to add to campus diversity and create new connections within China’s growing economy. Unfortunately, the sudden growth of China’s study abroad trend has also created a fresh market for unscrupulous business practices—including widely circulated reports of Chinese students duped into paying top tuition prices at lower tier universities, and growing ranks of college “agents” paid to engineer Chinese applications and essays to appeal to american admissions departments.
That’s why, with scheduled stops this year at high schools and college fairs in nanjing, Beijing, Shanghai, Wuxi, Shenzhen, and Chengdu, Colee says representing Macalester College in this marketplace requires more than just selling students on the student on the benefits of an american liberal arts education. it also means making sure those students get everything they paid for when their four years is finished.
Truth in advertising
Yulun Li ’14 is from the ancient city of Xi’an, better known to Western tourists “as the place where the terra cotta warriors come from,” he explains. Having studied English from the time he was in second grade, Li is one of a growing number of Chinese students who have elected to skip China’s gaokao, the high-stakes national test that determines college placement in China, to concentrate his efforts on the SAT and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (ToEFL). “There’s so much innovation in america, and all these brilliant people, so I just really wanted to come here and challenge myself and talk with all of these brilliant people,” Li says.
The SAT isn’t offered on mainland China, which made it necessary for Li to travel to Singapore three times for various entrance exams. Translating his Chinese education into a narrative that made sense to an american admissions department was an even bigger hurdle. “In America, they have counselors who can talk to you about academics and AP courses, but in China it’s a totally dif- ferent scenario,” he explains. in the U.S., for instance, high school teachers are accustomed to writing student recommendations, and understand what information admissions officers are hoping to glean from their letters. “In China, teachers do not see the point of this, and it’s very hard to change their mindset,” Li says.
This culture clash has created a growth business for admissions agencies—more than 400 are licensed by the Chinese government—that help students to crack the admissions code for fees that can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $15,000 for a “guaranteed” acceptance to a top school. a 2010 report from Zinch China, an online social network that matches Chinese students with colleges and scholarships, found that 80 percent of Chinese students on their way to the U.S. have contracts with these agents. it also found that 90 percent of teacher recommendations are faked, and that 70 percent of personal essays aren’t written by applicants.
To discourage this trend, Macalester invites Chinese students to contact the college directly, and to seek advice from other Chinese students already on campus. as with other international students, Macalester works with enrolled Chinese students fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, and other languages to call or write back to prospective Chinese students who have questions or are confused about the application process. Macalester also posts a series of student blogs that present a real-time picture of campus life, including one written in Mandarin by shuang Zheng ’13, an economics and math major from Shanghai. “Basically I write about my feelings and personal experiences, trying to share with all the other prospective Chinese students how challenging and interesting it is to be a Mac student,” says Zheng. Blog topics most useful to Chinese students like her, she says, are “information such as the campus neighborhood, whether it’s convenient to reach nice restaurants and grocery shopping malls, the tolerance of the community, the academic atmosphere, and whether or not the social life is energetic.”
Since the internet has become the most important way international students learn about their college options, Macalester has responded by posting as much as it can about campus life, student diversity, and the curriculum students are likely to encounter—particularly Mac’s emphasis on small class sizes that demand student participation. “We put a lot of things on our website that may or may not be attractive to them,” says Hamre, noting that the extra information may help weed out students who are mostly drawn by Mac’s high rankings in the college listings so valued by Chinese admissions agencies. “We want to lay out exactly what Mac is so that we don’t have students who are disappointed or surprised when they come.”
Yulun Li admits he was impressed by famous Macalester alums such as Kofi Annan ’61 and Walter Mondale ’50, but he also appreciated the truth in advertising he saw on the college website. Though his parents hired an agent to insure that his financial aid section was filled out properly, Li says he worked hard on his personal essays, writing one about what he learned about spirituality from a Muslim friend in high school, and another about his two-year struggle teaching himself to whistle.
“i’m sure they could tell I wrote it myself,” Li laughs, adding that the promised opportu- nities for faculty interaction that first attracted him to Macalester have already materialized. “The other day I got an e-mail from my poli sci professor asking me how my summer was going and saying we should get together for coffee,” says Li. “it was so sweet I almost couldn’t believe it.”
The opportunity to make real connections with american professors and students is often a major draw for students from China, where the educational emphasis is often on lecture hall learning. Yet faced with their first real exposure to american culture, many Chi- nese students admit they’re overwhelmed. “at first I couldn’t believe how straightforward americans are,” says Jingjao Zhang ’12 (Shanghai), who still recalls the dorm neighbor who greeted her for the first time “with a hug instead of a handshake.”
Catching up with classroom discussions can be another challenge. “i’m the kind of student who liked to talk a lot back in my country, but in the U.S. I found myself still thinking in Chinese and translating, and it made me lose my advantage,” says Wanyi li ’12 (Shanghai). another thing that’s hard to translate is sarcasm, says Feifei Zuo ’11. Though she now understands enough to keep up with most american humor, “the hardest part is to use it, because it al- most requires changing part of your personality, not just the way you speak, but also your thought process.”
Equally disorienting for many students is the casual discussion of hot button campus issues such as gay rights, gender issues, sexual harassment, date rape, drug abuse, and mental health counseling— some of which are foreign notions in China. (in fact, in Mandarin there’s no single word for “counseling.”) “it was almost a shock to hear about these things at first because they’re not really talked about much in China, “ says Qingyang liu ’14 (Shanghai).
During those first few months of adjustment, says Liu, the resource she relied on most was clark bledsoe ’13, a football player/ anthropology major from Florida who served as her international Student Mentor. “He checked in with me almost every week to talk about my friends, roommate issues, how I was doing in classes. He even loaned me a cell phone because the one I brought from China had a terrible signal in the U.S.,” recalls Liu. She spent last summer learning to drive so she could return the favor by serving as an international Student Mentor this fall for the next wave of interna- tional students to arrive on campus.
another point of contact for many Chinese students is the international Student Host Family Program, which pairs Twin Cities families, many with Macalester connections, to incoming interna- tional students. Since the cost of flying home for every school break is prohibitive for most students, many Chinese students stay with host families during the holidays. Some even live with hosts during the summers while employed at the college as part of their work- study programs. (international students are prohibited from working off campus.) The relationships often take the form of surrogate parents. For instance, when Wanyi Li tore her anterior cruciate liga- ment, she says, “it was my host mom who drove me to all my orthopedist appointments.”
Connections with non-Chinese students can take longer to form. Chen Gu says it wasn’t until he distinguished himself as a chemistry whiz that his dorm room began to fill every night before homework was due. “Real friendships took longer than that,” he says. Without the same pop culture reference points (“i didn’t hear of Lady Gaga until I got here,” admits Yulun Li), it can be hard for even the most fluent students to feel part of the conversation.
“Of course, i’ve never seen the Tv shows most people talk about, but in China, people are also not accustomed to saying everything out loud,” says Qingyang Liu. as a result, fielding getting-to-know- you questions from american students such as, “So what’s it like to live under a dictatorship?” can take some getting used to. “I actually like the way americans express their ideas, and criticize the things they don’t think are fair or good enough,” says Liu. “i understand it’s not a challenge to me personally, but I want to offer some insight.”
Sharing their culture
After all, as many Chinese students point out, they’re not just com- ing to america to learn the nuances of The Daily Show—they’re also eager to share their culture with american students. That’s one reason that Feifei Zuo, Wanyi Li, and several friends founded the Chinese Culture Club, a new student organization designed to host panel discussions about modern China, while sharing some of the country’s historic and cultural traditions.
For instance, in September during the autumn Moon Festival, a traditional holiday celebrated when the moon is at its fullest, the group handed out dozens of mooncakes, a traditional lotus-seed paste dessert. Chinese students have also volunteered at a Chinese immersion school in St. Paul and spoken to a Twin Cities group of teenage Chinese adoptees.
But with a critical mass of Chinese students on campus—3 percent of all students—most cross-cultural conversations are far less formal than that, occurring in classrooms and dorm rooms every day. For instance, over their three years together as roommates, Jingjaio Zhang ’12 and Susanne Murphy ’12, have enjoyed trips to Murphy’s appleton, Wisconsin, home during deer hunting season (“Jingjaio screamed when she saw a dead deer strapped to the back of car,” Murphy recalls), and Zhang’s family has hosted the Murphys in their Shanghai home.
“I was interested in neuro- science when I came to Macalester, but now I’m majoring in international relations,” says Murphy, who credits her friendships with Zhang and another Chinese student, yiting Wang ’12 (Shanghai), as an important influence on this decision. after graduation, Murphy hopes to travel to Shanghai to teach English “so I can really improve my Chinese.”
Though he’s just beginning his sophomore year at Macalester, Yulun Li hopes he can have the same effect on other students, giving them a more nuanced view of modern China, and helping them to see what americans and Chinese have in common. “I try to answer questions and be open and sincere, and in this way, I think I can be a good ambassador,” he says. “after all, we knew very little about America before we came here.”
In the meantime, he intends to focus his studies on economics, language and philosophy, “So that I can think more logically, and also so I can make better jokes.” He’s made progress already. “i really think I am starting to understand The Daily Show.”
Laura Billings ColeMan lives near Macalester and is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.
Two Generations From China by Yan Liu ’10
Even with gps and iphones, trying to meet some- one in a big chinese city isn’t easy. After years of construction, many parts of beijing—where i’d grown up but had spent little time in recent years— have become unrecognizable. to make matters worse, the morning I set out to visit tu guangnan ’50 it was raining heavily.
I was drenched and excited when I finally found tu’s apartment, a government compensation after he’d lost his property during the cultural revolution. tu, now in his eighties, slowly opened his iron door. behind the door, he was waiting for me with a welcoming smile.
The late 1940s was an unusual time for a young chinese man be living in the united states and studying political science at a liberal arts college. even today in china, I must frequently answer questions such as, “What is minnesota?” and “What do you mean by a liberal arts college?”
While at macalester, tu lived in kirk. When I saw a photo of him taken in 1947, standing beneath a kirk archway, I remembered tripping on the same spot during the icy winter of my junior year.
Macalester isn’t the only connection between us. half a century ago, tu worked with my grand- mother at the china Academy of social sciences. Although they were once colleagues, they never met again after chairman mao’s political move- ments placed many of the Academy’s members under prosecution.
despite being 60 years apart in age, tu and I have many things in common. first, we were both political science majors—even though some of my professors thought I was the first chinese student to major in that field. second, we are both foreign returnees with a Western social science back- ground. While we both feel grateful to macalester for what we learned, how do we adapt to a system where the concept of free- dom is often referred to as a threat or a trap set up by the West?
We both returned from macal- ester with the typical idealism—the inner call to make a difference. tu’s father—a political science phd from the univer- sity of illinois—was a diplomat under chiang kai- shek’s kmt (Nationalist) government. having seen the corruption of the kmt regime, the tu family de- cided not to follow chiang’s defeated government to taiwan in 1949, and tu left minnesota in 1950 ex- cited to help construct a new china. however, tu’s family affiliation with the kmt, coupled with their foreign experience, soon became a barrier to his ambition. for years he had to avoid professions that his macalester education suited him for and spend his time on farm work instead. his father died while serving as a political prisoner during the cultural revolution.
“We both want to do something for our country, and it is not easy,” says tu, as he invites me to a family lunch. for ideological reasons, tu was un- able to use his political science knowledge after he left macalester. however, he’s grateful that the chinese gov- ernment allowed him to build a long career—using his spanish minor—at the ministry of for- eign Affairs and the institute of latin American studies of the chinese Academy of social sci- ences. that’s where he worked for over half a century.
We agree that I was returning home at a better time for china. in the age of the internet, no one can stop the spread of infor- mation about world and domestic events. “during mao’s last days, if you told people that the chairman was very sick, which was the truth, you would be prosecuted or treated badly. it doesn’t matter now,” he says. it is amazing that i, the grandson of a communist soldier from the peasant class, would end up studying at a liberal arts college in the faraway midwest. it is even more amazing how I connected, through macalester, with tu, one of the old chinese intellectuals from the republican era. We come from different layers of history, yet we met in one.