Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010

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China Connection
From top: Xuefeng “Nick” Peng '10 and Binsen Li '13

When students travel halfway across the world for college, everyone wins

By Elizabeth Hamilton


Binsen Li '13 assumes he would have an easier time getting through school if he'd stayed in China, but he doesn't regret for one minute his decision to enroll at Connecticut College.

That's because Li knows he is experiencing something it would be almost impossible for him to replicate in China — a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences.

“My father read about how lots of Chinese kids were going to school in the U.S., and then he started to read books about the American educational system,” Li says. “He thinks this education will benefit me a long time because it is a lifelong education.”

Students like Li are coming to the same conclusion in increasing numbers, thanks in part to the recruiting efforts at Connecticut College and other U.S. schools, according to Scott Alexander, associate director of admission and coordinator of international admission.

“China's economy has blossomed, and because of that it's making a private liberal arts education more accessible to students in China,” Alexander says.

“One of the best exports the U.S. has is our education,” he adds. “It is still highly valued, and in a culture where there are 1.4 billion people, families are looking for other educational opportunities so they can provide their one child a leg up over the competition.”

The numbers speak for themselves. There were 20 applicants from China for the Class of 2004, Alexander says, compared to 107 Chinese applicants for the Class of 2014 — a fivefold increase.

“At one time we had more applicants from Bulgaria than the state of Vermont,” Alexander says. “Now China is the new Bulgaria.”

The same surge is happening nationally, according to the Open Doors report, which is published by the Institute of International Education. The report, released last year, tracked enrollment numbers from the 2008-09 academic year.

The study found that China is second only to India in the number of students it is sending to American universities, and sent 98,510 students here in 2008, a 21-percent increase over the previous year.

The reasons for the increase vary — increased wealth in Chinese families, a growing interest in China in a liberal arts education and stronger recruitment efforts by American schools looking to mitigate the effects of a bad economy.

Members of the Connecticut College admission staff will make three trips to China this year alone and conduct additional interviews with Chinese students via Skype this winter, says Alexander, who took one such trip in August.

He is optimistic that a high percentage of the high school students he and his colleagues interview in China this year will apply to the College.

The College has long had a commitment to an internationalized campus, offering a study abroad program, a varied curriculum and a strong recruitment effort around the globe. Admission staff visit anywhere from 10 to 18 countries each year.

“The College believes providing students with diverse opportunities will better prepare them for life after college,” Alexander says. “And with the decline of high school graduates in the Northeast, one way for the College to remain competitive is to recruit overseas.”

While there are challenges for both sides when recruiting students from China, administrators and students say the payoff is huge for both the school and its students.

“I learned a critical way of thinking,” says Xuefeng “Nick” Peng '10, who is now at Princeton pursuing a Ph.D. in geosciences. “As Chinese kids grow up they are often taught to be obedient, and I think many of us lack a critical thinking ability. I developed that by taking humanities and social sciences classes.”

Peng, who based his decision to attend Connecticut College on its reputation as having one of the best environmental studies programs in the Northeast, says he also became more open-minded after four years as an undergraduate.

Challenges, which were also cited by Li, were language difficulties during his freshman year, homesickness and culture shock.

“You always feel not really easy or comfortable to be with other people, not like you were before with other Chinese people,” Li says, referring to his freshman year. “It's better now. A lot better.”

International Student Adviser Carmela Patton says the school offers workshops that are intended to help students acclimate. The topics range from academic honesty to culture lessons, where some of the mysteries of American college life are explained, she says. For example, when people say “How are you?” they don't always wait around for an answer.

“A domestic student going to college is already a little bit changed, but an international student leaves everything behind — family, culture, friends — so we try to help them adjust,” Patton says.

Perhaps the largest challenge Chinese students face is the pressure they put on themselves to succeed.

“We are the only children, and our parents love us and spent a fortune on us, and they expect us to really gain something from here,” Li says. “We really don't want them to be disappointed.”


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