NEW YORK » In her ballroom dance class, Li Wanrong has learned to tango and cha-cha. At lunch one day, she tried a strange mix of flavors — pepperoni pizza, the spicy sausage and oozing cheese nearly burning her tongue. Then there was that Friday night before going clubbing for the first time when new friends gave her a makeover, and she looked in the mirror to see an American girl smiling back wearing a little black dress, red lipstick and fierce eyeliner.
"I say ‘wow’ a lot," says Li, a freshman at Drew University, a small liberal arts school in Madison, N.J.
Against her parents’ wishes, she studied for and took the SAT in Hong Kong, a three-hour bus ride from her home in southern China. She told them she was going there to do some shopping. Her parents eventually came around, persuaded by her determination and a $12,000 scholarship that would take some of the sting out of the $40,000 tuition at Drew, which her high school teacher had recommended.
Describing her whirlwind transformation to college kid sometimes leaves Li at a loss for words. And sometimes the cultural distance seems too much, especially when facing dining options in the cafeteria.
Li is part of a record wave of Chinese high school graduates enrolling in American colleges, joining the fabric of campus life as roommates and study partners and contributing to the global perspectives to which colleges are so eager to expose their students.
While China’s students have long filled American graduate schools, its undergraduates now represent the fastest-growing group of international students. In 2008-09, more than 26,000 were studying in the United States, up from about 8,000 eight years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.
Students are ending up not just at nationally known universities, but also at regional colleges, state schools and even community colleges that recruit overseas. Most of these students pay full freight (international students are not eligible for government financial aid) — a benefit for campuses where the economic downturn has gutted endowments or state financing.
"The Chinese are going to invest in anything that gives them an edge, and having a U.S. degree certainly gives them that edge back home," says Peggy Blumenthal, a vice president at the Institute of International Education. American colleges offer the chance to gain fluency in English, develop real-world skills, and land a coveted position with a multinational corporation or government agency.
Ding Yinghan grew up in a modest apartment with his mother, a marketing executive, and his father, a civil servant in Beijing’s work safety administration whose own mother is illiterate. A child of the "new China," he is fully aware that his generation has opportunities unavailable to any before.
His parents pushed him to study hard — and study abroad — because they have little faith in the Chinese education system. Sipping tea in their living room one sweltering August afternoon, Ding’s mother, Meng Suyan, reflects on the Chinese classroom.
"In the U.S. they focus on creative-thinking skills, while in China they only focus on theory," she says. "So what university students learn here doesn’t prepare them for the real world."
Says Ding: "Chinese values require me to be a good listener, and Western values require me to be a good speaker."
A bespectacled whiz kid, Ding was accepted early admission to Hamilton College in upstate New York following a yearlong exchange program at a North Carolina public high school. Now a junior, he is on a full scholarship, No. 1 in his class and spending this year at Dartmouth on a dual-degree engineering program. He also founded the bridge club at Hamilton, ran the Ping-Pong team, wrote for the student newspaper and tutored in chemistry, physics and economics for $8.50 an hour.
At Hamilton, he is surrounded by wealth — some students, he says, fly to Manhattan on weekends in helicopters, party with Champagne instead of beer and smoke $100 cigars. It’s a new experience for a man who gets his hair cut a few times a year because the $15 is a lot of money for his parents, who fret that they cannot afford to provide him with health insurance in the United States. But sending their child to live across the world is a worthy sacrifice, says his father, Ding Dapeng.
"In China 25 years ago it was rare to even go to university, so for Yinghan to study in the U.S. is a real miracle."
"Today the world is so small," he says. "Only by broadening his knowledge with an international background can Yinghan really become a global citizen."
To help students make the cultural leap — as well as to internationalize their institutions — colleges and universities are building programs that begin in China and end, hopefully, on an American campus.
Teachers College of Columbia University has started a program for high school seniors (in China, much of the last year is spent reviewing for a college entrance exam, though curriculum varies). This year, the program’s first, 28 students spent six months at the University of International Relations in Beijing; 19 were found qualified to finish off the year at Columbia. The program preps students to apply as freshmen, with a focus on English instruction, cultural immersion and counseling, including study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and SAT, and a tour of campuses in the Northeast. (Total cost: about $45,000, including room and board.)
Another new program, U.S.-Sino Pathway, aims to transition high school students into one of six participating colleges. Northeastern University devised the curriculum, a year of for-credit courses taken at Kaplan Inc. branches in China and at a summer bridge session at Northeastern’s Boston campus or the University of Vermont. Kaplan handles administration, English-language instruction in China and recruitment of students. (Total cost: about $26,000 to $28,000, including room and board in the United States.)
Yuan Xiecheng, who grew up amid the neon-lit skyscrapers and karaoke emporiums of Shanghai, was eager to study abroad. He had planned to go to a Canadian university until he attended a presentation by the chief executive officer of Kaplan China, Zhou Yong. When Zhou announced that students would not have to take the SAT or TOEFL or attend the final year of high school, Yuan leaped at the opportunity. He attended an international high school and says he was 20 course credits short of graduation. Instead, he took the final exam given to secure a Chinese diploma and enrolled in the pathway program. He is now a sophomore at Vermont.
Zhao Siwei took the same route. "This program is super easy to enter, and it was really easy to come here to the U.S.," says Zhao, who hopes to major in film and TV at Vermont. "I love it here," she concludes. She expresses amazement, though, at her program peers’ English: "They can’t talk. They can’t communicate with American people."
Zhou Kehui had an unusual adjustment to Brigham Young University. Growing up in officially atheist China, she knew little about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with which the university is affiliated. Mormonism is not a state-sanctioned religion, and proselytizing by its members is illegal.
Zhou chose Brigham Young on the recommendation of a friend of her father’s, who had gone there. Its business school also ranks highly. Her parents thought the university’s honor code, with its rules of conduct, would keep her safe and focused. Initially, however, the curfew and code, which includes a ban on short skirts and drinking tea, left her shellshocked.
"It was really hard for me to accept the rules in the beginning," says Zhou, a junior majoring in accounting. "I mean, where I’m from, in Fujian province, drinking tea every day is what we do."
But few American universities offer the comfort zone she found here. Though there are only 77 Chinese undergraduates at Brigham Young, with so many Mormons doing their two years of missionary work in Taiwan and Hong Kong, finding someone fluent in her language was easy. "A lot of times I’d be walking on campus when some white dude would just come up to me and start speaking Chinese," Zhou says. That warmth and common experience — not to mention several meetings with church missionaries — went a long way toward convincing her BYU was the right match.
A few months after arriving, Zhou was baptized, which, she says, provided a support network. That Mormonism is considered subversive at home, or that her parents were unhappy with her conversion, gave her little pause. After all, she says, saving her soul was as logical as deciding to go to college in the United States. "It wasn’t a hard choice to make," she says. "It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life."