Now, nation a big draw for foreign students

By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-12-19 07:09

More than a quarter-century ago, multinational companies ventured into China, not knowing what to expect but seeing the opportunities.

Now college students from around the world are here studying for the same reason. So, what's the verdict on the Middle Kingdom?

China can be "extremely foreign," said Richard de Saivo, a senior at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

"I had never been to China before, so I had no idea what to expect," he explained. "It turned out that the language is so foreign, the people are so foreign and virtually everything is so exotic."

De Saivo is spending the fall semester in Beijing. At the recently enlarged programme of the Chicago-based Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) in the Chinese capital, he studies Chinese for four hours every day and also takes courses in Chinese economy and history.

He and many of his young compatriots are finding the Middle Kingdom to be a new magnet. China has become a favourite Asian destination of students from the United States who study abroad.

In the 2004-05 academic year, nearly 6,400 students came to China a 35 per cent increase from the year before, according to a report published last month by the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE) with funding from the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

With such dramatic growth, China is now the eighth-leading host destination for American students and the only Asian country in the top 10, the report said. In the meantime, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States remained steady at around 62,500.

Both educators and students agreed that the reported increase in the number of American students coming to China in the 2004-05 academic year is only the prelude to an even greater boom.

Michael Zhao director of the Study-in-Beijing Program of the IES, a non-profit organization that runs study-abroad programmes around the world said: "I am sure that, in two or three years, the Beijing programme will become the largest one among IES' programmes in 15 countries by exceeding the champion, now in Barcelona."

The primary reason so many students pick China is, no doubt, its economic and social development.

"It's simple," de Saivo said. "There are a lot of opportunities in China, and I wanted to have a look there."

De Saivo said he became interested in China long before he arrived. He started learning Chinese as early as 14, when a Chinese language course was offered at his boarding school. He continued learning Chinese at college, although he majors in anthropology.

"I think it is important to be able to use the Chinese language," he said. "If you want to be good at a language, it is best that you go to the place."

Chen See, a senior majoring in biochemistry at Northeastern University in Boston, also said that she came to China mainly to improve her language skills.

Chen, whose parents are from China, could speak and read some Chinese before she joined the IES Beijing programme in September, but she needed to improve her writing skills.

"My skills in the Chinese language will help with my future career," she told China Daily. "There are so many Chinese in America, and I can speak with the Chinese patients. That's going to be cool."

Tyler Sossin, a senior international relations major at Stanford University, said he chose China because of the country's growing importance in world politics.

"I study world relations, and you cannot miss China when you do that," he said. "I'd like to be a China expert."

The rapid rise in the number of students heading to China and to a lesser degree, India has come as little surprise to educators, given the two countries' prominence in the world economy, Mary Dwyer, IES president, told the US-based Chronicle of Higher Education.

Students are "just more aware: 'Gee, China and India are major players. I better get there,'" she said. Her institution has had programmes in China since 1990, and newly opened one in India in January.

Yaw Nyarko - vice-provost for globalization and multi-cultural affairs at New York University, which sends more students abroad than any other university in the United States - was also quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying: "People are sensing that the economic boom is there. It's the future of the world."

Besides its booming prominence globally, it was also because of the rapidly increasing reports about China in the US media that made it a top choice of American students, said Zhao, of IES' Beijing office.

"People are reading much about China (in the United States)," he said. "There is a 'China fever' going on."

Another factor: China has impressed the world with a stable society that has kept it from being a target of terrorist attacks, Zhao said.

"When parents think of sending their children abroad, safety naturally becomes their top concern," he said. "They believe China to be one of the safest places in the world."

So, what are American youth doing in China besides learning the language?

Chen, from Boston, is taking a course about contemporary Chinese issues and doing an internship at the Beijing International Medical Centre.

"I am doing mainly the receptionist work," she said, "such as answering phone calls and arranging appointments."

Sossin, from Stanford, is also doing an internship, as a language polisher at China Radio International. "My tutor is really kind, and she gave me a lot of good advice," he said.

During their internships, most American students are found to have the ability to execute more than one task at a time, and possess strong problem-solving skills and critical-thinking habits, Zhao said.

"They always bring in different perspectives to problem-solving to a Chinese organization," he noted.

A senior manager at DaimlerChrysler China Ltd, who preferred to be anonymous because of company regulations, told China Daily that his department is looking for American students as interns.

"Our marketing department has a few American interns, and they are very good, full of creativity and initiative, and quick to adapt to a new environment," he said.

"People have been more than busy at my department, so we began to think: 'Why not have some interns share the work?'"

Besides the internships, the American students are doing some volunteer work in China. A few used to teach at a school for children of migrant workers in Beijing, and some have worked at a school for Tibetan kids in the rural areas near Kangding, Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Travelling, both the organized and the private kinds, is also an important part of the life of these young Americans in China.

Sossin went to Kashgar, an oasis city at the border of deserts in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, during China's National Day holiday, and most of the students joined an organized trip along the Silk Road this summer.

How do the American students feel about their stay in China? "It is very different having your daily life here from being a tourist," Chen said.

Chen visited China a couple of times before with her parents, but even she had some difficulty in adapting to life in Beijing. "When you first get here, you cannot get used to two things," she said, "first the traffic, and second the air pollution.

"You have to get used to the local flavour, to eat the local food and to meet the local people. It is totally a different feeling from being a tourist and simply doing some sightseeing.

"But you will soon learn to love this place, especially when you improve in reading and speaking Chinese."

She concluded that her experience in China helped her to become more open-minded.

De Saivo, from Tennessee, said this semester is giving him more of a cross-cultural perspective. He has been reading a lot about the modern Chinese history, especially the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

After spending one semester, one year or even more in China, some of these American students will come back and work in this country, Zhao said.

As an example, Ruth Dowe, a graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, who participated in the IES China programme, is applying for a job at the US Embassy in Beijing.

"We even had one student who is now a college teacher in remote Yunnan Province," Zhao said. "Isn't that cool?"

(China Daily 12/19/2006 page1)

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