It would be hard to find a more iconic American campus than that of the University of Illinois’s main campus here. On the unseasonably warm late October weekend when the homecoming football game is played, the trees have changed to their fall colors and the central quad is alive. Students wearing orange Illinois gear crisscross it. Three young women who do not lack for pep pose for pictures, their arms arched into the shape of an I, an L, another L. One of those tightrope-like slacklines that have become ubiquitous on college campuses is strung between two trees.
Couples snooze, families walk dogs, a child rides piggyback. A group of revelers, possibly students, possibly young alumni, traverse the quad with an air of purpose: one clutches a Bud Light in an orange cozy, while another announces to anyone within a 20-foot radius that she really needs to pee. Toward the end of the weekend, on Sunday afternoon, an all-male a cappella group called the Xtension Chords gives a concert in front of the student union, concluding with a performance of “I Love Illinois” sung to the tune of “I Love Rock N’ Roll” (sample lyrics: “Wisconsin’s got no class/And Indiana can kiss my a…”).
Outside the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign, miles of corn and soybean fields spread as far as the eye can see. The university’s nickname in China, I’m told, translates roughly as “village of corn.”
That’s not an idle fact. UIUC enrolls nearly 5,000 students from China, more than any other U.S. university. Nationally, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. has risen fivefold since 2000 – driven by a big increase in the number of Chinese students going overseas for their undergraduate degrees – but even against that backdrop of growth the expansion of the Chinese student population at Illinois’s public flagship university has been remarkable: a university that enrolled just 37 undergraduates from the People’s Republic in 2000 enrolls 2,898 today. Nearly a tenth of this fall’s freshman class – 684 students – hail from China. There are more freshmen from China than there are, combined, from 48 of the 50 states, all save for Illinois and California.
Even at the graduate level, where there was a larger base to begin with, UIUC’s Chinese student enrollment has more than tripled, from 649 in 2000 to 1,973 this fall.
The 4,898 Chinese students make up the largest group of international students on Illinois’s campus, followed distantly by students from South Korea (1,268 this fall) and India (1,167).
What is the impact of such a shift? What happens when a classic American university in the heartland is better known in Beijing than in Boston, in Tianjin than in Tucson?
Some effects are easy to quantify: increased demand from international students who have needs that differ from those of their American peers at the writing center, the career services center, the counseling center, etc. The university has responded to the increased numbers of students from China in myriad ways small – tweaking rice cookery methods in the dining halls, offering a shuttle service from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for arriving students – and significant: holding three pre-departure orientations in China, hiring more Mandarin-speaking staff.
But there are other changes that are more qualitative – namely, the implications of an increasingly international undergraduate population for the academic experience and the impact on student life. With the increase of international undergraduate students across the nation, leaders of U.S. universities invariably say they welcome the worldly perspectives these students bring to the classroom and the dorm room even as their pursuit of ever-larger numbers of them has been criticized as a form of profiteering (international students themselves tend to be cognizant of their financial importance for the university and the higher tuition rates they pay). How much cross-pollination of perspectives is really happening at a place like Illinois? Is much happening by way of meaningful interactions between Chinese and American students or are members of both groups, by and large, indifferent?
UIUC’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) provides a home away from home for many of the university’s Chinese students. The organization is big and bureaucratic: it has nearly 300 officers and is subdivided into 14 branches: nine departments – dedicated to such duties as public relations, information technology and undergraduate and graduate student activities – and five clubs (a dance club, a photography club, a video club, a music club, and a news club that produces reports about the organization’s events). The CSSA hosts everything from information sessions with recruiters from Chinese companies to a basketball tournament to an annual dating game event modeled after the Chinese television show, “If You Are the One.” Its largest event is an annual gala to celebrate the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival featuring performances of kung fu, Chinese yo-yo, drama, singing, and dance.
“We’re trying to do everything, like picking up the incoming freshmen all the way through doing the events, trying to help them to find a date,” says David Sun, CSSA’s president (the organization had its own shuttle service for picking up incoming Chinese students at the airport well before the university initiated an official transport option this past fall). On homecoming weekend, CSSA sponsored a dance event in the student union in which snazzily dressed Chinese students danced the tango. The night’s proceedings were mostly in Mandarin save for the instructions given by the dance teacher, who had given two prior lessons so students could prepare for the evening’s formal.
“[CSSA] can provide our students with a family and it can also provide our members with opportunities, both opportunities for leadership and opportunities for adapting to life here,” says Shiyan Zhang, a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering who directed this fall’s Moon Gala.
Zhang, who earned her undergraduate degree at Tsinghua University, a top technical university in Beijing, is an example of the type of Chinese student that American universities have long been accustomed to attracting: academically elite students studying at the graduate level. By contrast, Sun, a senior actuarial science and statistics major from the seaside city of Dalian who attended an English-language high school with a British Columbian curriculum, is part of the new(-ish) wave of Chinese students coming to the U.S. at the undergraduate level.
At a Starbucks on Green Street in Champaign, Sun discusses the adjustment process for Chinese students. “Coming to the United States, we all know it’s culturally different, we all know it’s a totally different language. Before coming to the United States, Chinese students may wonder what life here would be [like]. Reality may be different from Hollywood movies.”
“They need a lifestyle, they need a new lifestyle, it’s definitely not the old one in China, but it might not be the purely American way either, and it’s up to everyone himself or herself.”
Asked what he means by “new lifestyle,” Sun elaborates. What friends you make: that’s the most important, he says. “Are you going to make American friends, Chinese friends or a mixture?”
Other key questions for Chinese students, as he sees it: “Are you going to just study every day or take some social life?”
“Are you going to continue working here or just go back to China after graduation?”
“And also which food are you going to eat?” Sun pauses. “I hate dining hall,” he adds, unprompted. I tell him about a conversation I had with the head of university housing and dining, Alma R. Sealine, in which she told me that the chefs are trying to improve the ways they cook rice – six different types of it – in response to Chinese student comments. “They’re trying,” I say.
Sun thinks that’s funny. ”That was a comment I made! Last semester there was a student panel and they asked, ‘One thing you want to change, what’s that going to be?’ I said, ‘The rice. Don’t cook brown rice. Please, white rice.’ ”
“I said to them, ‘During the past 19 years of my life in China, I’ve never, ever eaten brown rice. No.’ ”
Zhang cuts in. “Me neither. Me neither. “
“Coming here and seeing the brown thing there and it looked like rice, and I tried once, never twice,” Sun says.
“I used to think it was some kind of fried rice,” says Zhang.
Sun: “But the taste.”
“It’s healthier,” I offer.
Sun: “Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.”
I return to the point Sun started with about making Chinese or American friends: Is there a big gap between the two groups of students, I ask? “Definitely,” Sun responds.
“They eat brown rice and we eat white rice,” Zhang says. She is joking, but the metaphor is not unapt.
“There’s definitely a gap but I’ll say it’s up to you how to view it,” says Sun. He describes one woman he knows who spent time trying to forge deep friendships with Americans as a freshman only to decide, in her sophomore year, that “it’s not worth it.”
“To fit into the American culture better, to know more American people, she actually abandoned herself from the Chinese society, I mean, from the local Chinese society, so she didn’t really make a lot of Chinese friends here.”
“She tried to make real friends, real American friends — not people who just say hi or people who just grab a drink or a coffee, she tried to make it something deep — but if you want to do this, it’s hard to have it both ways. When it comes to a very deep level, it’s hard,” Sun says.
“But it’s different. I know people who could manage it a little bit better. And also I see Americans who speak Mandarin trying to make Chinese friends.”
By ELIZABETH REDDEN January 7, 2015 in Inside HigherEd