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Learning to change, adapt and engage

By Gu Qing (China Daily) Updated: 2015-04-13 09:28

Chinese students studying abroad improve their employability and transform their outlook

The surge in Chinese students studying abroad can be traced back to a June 1978 speech by veteran Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, in which he said: "We are going to send thousands or tens of thousands of students to receive overseas education."

Almost four decades later, the number of Chinese students studying abroad has met his expectations.

But here is one alarming statistic. According to 2009 UNESCO figures, despite the high absolute numbers, only less than 2 percent of tertiary students from China study abroad.

The Chinese students represent two groups of elites: the socio-economic elite-who are mostly self-funded students-and the educated elite-students funded by scholarships. In my research, I focused on the experiences of studying abroad and how these experiences influenced these students upon their return to China.

My motivation to researching Chinese students in the United Kingdom is a personal one. Though I feel privileged to have been able to experience the "easy" life of being a fully sponsored master's student in Brighton, I also tasted the difficulties and challenges of being a primarily self-funded doctoral student in Birmingham. I deeply treasure my five years of student life in England because it showed me a whole new world and enabled me to develop values, skills and qualities that continue to benefit me in my academic career.

Over the past 10 years I have worked closely with my colleague, Professor Michele Schweisfurth of the University of Glasgow to investigate the experiences of international and Chinese students in the UK. For the vast majority of the Chinese students in our research, especially those who have returned to China for work, the value of studying abroad goes far beyond the qualifications on paper that attracted many to study in a UK university. The two things they valued the most were improved employability and a transformation of their personal outlook.

Confidence gained from the challenges of studying abroad and the value of knowledge and skills gained have influenced Chinese students' concept of themselves and their ways of living and working.

Many expressed increased confidence, enhanced self-efficacy and positive attitudes in the workplace. The most highly rated skills by 652 Chinese returnees in our research were: improved English-language skills (92 percent of polled Chinese students); increased ability to deal with change and initiatives (88 percent); work under pressure (85.3 percent); taking on leadership roles at work (78 percent); a more flexible attitude toward work (80 percent); and better time management and self-planning skills (75 percent).

In addition, some qualities and abilities they developed in their struggles while studying in the UK have become useful in their work in China. For example, the vast majority appreciated greater independence in analyzing and solving problems (96 percent); more confidence and positive attitudes toward life (89 percent); and increased ability to think creatively (81 percent) and critically (88 percent).

Moreover, 92 percent believed their work benefited from the intellectual development gained while studying abroad; 72 percent felt that their academic experience in the UK was particularly valued when they were looking for jobs; and that it was helpful for their professional development in the longer term.

An unexpected but most powerful change in Chinese students was a greater sense of their own cultural roots, coupled with broadened interests in life and an enhanced transnational outlook.

Rather than their international experience diluting their own Chinese backgrounds and home culture, 75 percent of returnees felt that their study abroad enhanced their appreciation of their own culture. The vast majority (95 percent) felt they had accepted global diversity and, as a result, had become more flexible and open-minded, with increased tolerance of different ideas and behavior.

This was because, for many Chinese students, the process of managing the emotional, social and intellectual challenges that they had experienced while studying and living in a foreign country had enabled them to step outside their own cultural and habitual norms and values in order to better understand "the other".

Zhou, 26, supported by her parents to attain a master's in accounting and financial management, was working in a State-owned enterprise when I interviewed her. She treasured the richness of her study-abroad experience because she had to view, understand and communicate with cultures other than her own. "Staying in a foreign country, you'll find the world is really big, and you can get into different circles to explore the unknown."

Study-abroad experiences had also brought changes to most respondents' social circles. Since their return to China, 85 percent had developed new friendships with people whose experiences were more closely matched to their own.

Living and studying abroad can be a difficult journey. It is not always rosy.

A postgraduate student said he had to "enjoy loneliness" to express the powerful and profound psychological and emotional frustrations he had to cope with in his social life while studying in the UK. He was not alone. Feelings of being lonely and "not belonging here" contributed to some students' sense of alienation in the host society.

Unfamiliarity with the pedagogical traditions in UK institutions was also found to have contributed to a "learning shock" that many Chinese students experienced, especially at the beginning of their studies.

The good news is that almost all Chinese students in our research had learned to change, adapt and ultimately engage confidently with the academic conventions as independent and competent learners. Their experiences, stemming from very different personal lives and professional backgrounds, revealed strong patterns that pointed to their own agency as a key driver for the profound, positive shifts of insight, skill and identity.

Encouraging individuals to study abroad remains part of China's capacity building strategy. As the number of Chinese students studying abroad is expected to rise, it is possible they will form, increasingly and significantly, a prominent critical mass in the workforce who will use the attitudes, skills and contacts that have connected them with the globalized world well beyond graduation.

The author is a professor of education at the University of Nottingham. The view does not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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