RALEIGH, N.C. - China is hoping that American college students watching the Summer Olympics will want to travel there, providing a bump similar to what Australia and Greece enjoyed in 2000 and 2004.
Melissa Sconyers, who studied abroad in China, is photographed in front of the Chinese flag in San Francisco Aug. 11, 2008. [Agencies]
But even before the 2008 Games, China was already on its way as the hot new destination for study abroad.
There are almost certainly at least 10,000 US students now enrolled annually in programs in China, up fivefold from a decade ago. China is the seventh most popular destination for US students, according to the Institute of International Education. But it's growing so quickly that, if trends continue, it will soon pass countries like Britain, Spain and Italy and become the most popular.
After a sharp dip in 2002-2003 during the SARS scare, some US colleges have seen huge surges in interest. At the University of Southern California, 343 students went to China last year, more than double the total five years ago. At Purdue University in Indiana, the number has doubled in four years, and last year China became the No. 1 study abroad destination.
"There's a sense that it's a cutting edge destination, where they can be among the first to learn firsthand about another culture," said Brian Harley, Purdue's associate dean for international programs. "There's something about being one of the first in your generation to really have a deep understanding."
While study abroad generally is growing, China's particular popularity has a range of explanations. It's cheaper than Europe, whose currencies have pummeled the US dollar. There's a supply of American-trained Chinese academics who help bridge the language and culture gap. And China itself has become more welcoming, hoping to emulate how the United States has used its universities to extend its global influence.
But most of all, students see China as the future, and they want a firsthand look.
They're also looking for a challenge.
Benjamin Zilnicki, a rising senior at Holy Cross in Massachusetts, had never left the United States when he departed for a semester in Beijing. He's an economics major but says he wasn't focused on improving his resume for a business career. Rather, he wanted to understand a new culture and push himself.
"It's probably the most different and most unorthodox place I could think of," said Zilnicki, who chose Beijing over a yearlong program at Oxford. "I kind of wanted that as opposed to England, where the prestige is there but the life experience is kind of similar."
For decades, Chinese-American educational exchange has been a one-way street. Just a few years ago, there were 25 Chinese students in American universities for every American studying in China, according to IIE.
Now, that ratio has plummeted to about 5 to 1 as studying in China has become substantially easier, with at least 220 programs in place -- some by independent providers and some run directly by colleges.
When the first programs began emerging in China in the 1980s, they attracted mostly hard-core language students. Now, there's a wider range of opportunities. Many programs now offer coursework in programs like business and journalism, and some, like IES -- a nonprofit offering study abroad in Beijing and expanding this year to Shanghai -- have offerings that require no previous language study. All but a handful of the Purdue students are taught in English.
Still, the experience often isn't quite as cozy as Americans are accustomed to. And that's one reason programs in China tend to attract a different kind of student.
"I think that's one of the real divisions between studying abroad in Europe and studying abroad in Asia," said Melissa Sconyers, a recent University of Texas graduates who studied abroad in both France and China. "The students in Asia are serious."
The Holy Cross students are enrolled in a program run by CET, a private company that is among the largest programs in China (enrollment has jumped 50 percent in the last three years, said director Mark Lenhart). Students pledge to speak only Chinese while there, which makes for a tough first few weeks (Zilnicki said he felt like a 4-year-old). And the culture shock is relentless.
For Holy Cross senior Kateleigh Hewins, it ranged from the language to not being able to flush toilet paper or drink tap water. But she got used to the plumbing, and after a semester of intense drilling and living with a Chinese roommate, her language skills improved dramatically.
"Even if it was harder than I expected it to be, that's not necessarily a bad thing, because I grew up a lot," she said.
American educators hope to double the number of students abroad by the end of the next decade. China, with its rapidly expanding higher education system and commitment to attracting more international students, will play a big role.
Still, like so much associated with rapid growth in China, it's not clear if the current growth rate can continue. Some universities have put the breaks on expansion plans for their Chinese partnerships. There are concerns about quality, and programs admit there's a long list of challenges -- lining up local staff, host families, and issues like health care.
"We're pretty sure that China can take more, but exactly how many and in what fields and what would it take to double or quadruple the numbers, that's something we as an industry will have to explore," said Allan Goodman, president and CEO of IIE, a nonprofit that promotes educational exchange and administers the Fulbright program.
Part of what's driving the numbers is the growth in short-term programs, often business-focused, that some educators complain aren't exactly cultural immersion. But they're better than nothing.
But anyone serious about learning the language will have to stay much longer.
Sconyers, the University of Texas graduate, stayed a full year and said it made a big difference.
"I would have been sorely disappointed if I had left after the first semester," said Sconyers, who said she made a big language breakthrough after two months. She managed to add a degree in Chinese to the one in advertising she had already planned.
"Honestly it's the best thing I could have my done for my career," said Sconyers, who worked in advertising for a year and now works for a San Francisco startup.