The student-led board of Chinese Students and Scholars Friendship Association at Kansas University is structured more like a business than a student group.
ShenJi Pan, a KU junior, is the group president. Vice presidents chair each of these arms: treasury, secretary, IT, archives, arts and performances, sports and activities, and public relations. Executive board meetings are held every other week, increasing as events draw near. Two faculty advisers provide guidance.
If this constitution seems a bit overdone, then consider this: The enrollment of students from China at KU has increased from 233 in 2005 to more than 900 in 2011. Students from China make up 41 percent of all international students at KU, and the Chinese Students and Scholars Friendship Association is the largest foreign student group. Among the top 10 nations sending students to KU, the number of students coming from China is rising much more quickly than any other nation.
KU is not alone in witnessing an influx of students from China. Across the United States, universities are enrolling more Chinese students. Overall, the national trend in the last five years reflects an increase of more than 100 percent.
While China has been consistent in sending graduate students to the U.S. for study, the recent leaps in numbers are being fueled significantly by undergraduates.
Yong Bai, one of KU’s faculty advisers to the student group, explains, “Globalization has allowed the common Chinese person to broaden their perspectives on different types of education. Along with that, the economy in China has improved significantly in recent years, so that many families have the resources to send their children abroad for study.”
YuQi Gao’s parents aren’t rich, but sent their child to KU to study.
“The reason I came here,” says the KU sophomore, “is because in China, a student’s life is very intense. There is no leisure time — only studying and preparing for exams. I wanted to be able to learn real skills in my education, rather than just studying to pass exams.”
That is not to say that Chinese students coast in their new surroundings. Language is one significant hurdle. Most Chinese students start learning English in grade school, some as early as preschool. But with the focus mainly on English reading and writing, even high testing students arrive in the United States with painfully low listening and speaking skills.
At KU, students who have not passed the TOEFL (Testing of English as a Foreign Language Exam) must pass a standardized English test before beginning their academic coursework. Until they do, they must take classes at the Applied English Center at KU.
As they enter college in Lawrence, KU’s Chinese Students and Scholars Friendship Association provides practical services and a community of expatriates for incoming students. From pickup service at the airport, to arranging for temporary housing, to instructions on how to enroll in classes — the student group gives newly acclimating students a touchstone that, for many, becomes like a family away from home.
A handbook of practical information, written in Chinese and English, is given to each Chinese student. The group also has corporate sponsors with companies such as Sprint and Bank of America, who give discounts to group members.
The student group also hosts events for traditional Chinese holidays, such as Mid Autumn Moon Festival and Spring Festival. One third of participants are Americans, invited by the group’s members. This year, the Spring Festival event drew 500 people, and next year, will be held at Lied Center, with an expected turnout of over 1,000 people.
“Our main focus is providing practical service to Chinese students,” says Pan. “But we also want to help connect our members to the wider Chinese community in Lawrence and Kansas City. We have even developed some ties with the Chinese embassy in Chicago.”
As to what students like Pan plan to do after graduation, their options are numerous. Pan says that with the developing Chinese economy, the trend of most Chinese students aiming to stay in the United States and get a green card after graduation are changing. Many graduates return to China and, armed with a degree from America, gain a hefty marketability.
“The relationship between the U.S. and China started on an economic level,” says Bai. “But has evolved into cultural and political levels as well. The relationship between these two countries is the most important one of the 21st century. These Chinese students who are studying in the U.S. — they are ambassadors for China when they come here, and then ambassadors for the U.S. when they return.”