The University of Iowa

Iowa universities see surge of Chinese students

December 8th, 2011

Schools adapt services to meet students’ needs

By Diane Heldt, The Gazette

Chinese students have flocked to American universities in record numbers in recent years, and officials at Iowa’s regent universities say to keep up they have added advisers and counselors, formed committees to monitor the students’ needs and pay special attention to orientation and language programs.

“China has happened to the United States, period,” University of Iowa Director of Admissions Mike Barron said. “They just simply have a lot of well-qualified students that their own universities can’t handle.”

Nationally, China sends the most students to U.S. universities of any country, with undergraduate enrollment of Chinese students increasing from 81,127 in 2007 to 157,558 in fall 2010, a jump of nearly 100 percent, according to a recent report by the Institute of International Education.

Enrollment of Chinese undergraduates increased 1,700 percent at the UI and 657 percent at Iowa State University in the past five years. The University of Northern Iowa has smaller international numbers, but also saw a 192 percent increase from 2007 to 2010 (fall 2011 numbers are not available).

The UI and ISU also enroll hundreds of graduate students from China, but much of the recent gains have come among undergraduates, as the Chinese middle class grows and can afford to send their children overseas. The few universities China has are highly competitive and can’t accommodate the population.

Many Chinese students come here to study because their chosen academic subject is more established at American universities, said Xuyang Han, a UI senior studying pre-law and international relations and politics with a minor in German.

Han, 19, is president of the UI Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has about 80 members. Other students are encouraged by their families to study here to better their English and learn about American culture, he said.

“I want to be internationally aware,” Han said. “You have to learn English in this global transition.”

Much of the ongoing discussion at the UI, including by a special committee formed three years ago when the Chinese enrollment boom started, centers on how successfully the university is integrating the students in the classroom and the campus community, said Scott King, director of the UI International Students and Scholars office.

As the Chinese enrollment shifts from graduate students to more undergraduate students, King’s office has seen walk-in advising visits by international students grow nearly 60 percent in the past three years.

“The goal is for students who come, to have a good social experience and to be successful,” King said.

Chinese students at the UI often hang out together, especially when they first arrive, to help with the cultural adjustment, Han said. But spending time with American students is the best way to practice the language and learn the culture, he said.

“Sometimes when you hang out too much with Chinese students, you speak too much Chinese,” he said. “It doesn’t help. It’s a controversial issue.”

The lack of social interaction is something on which UI student Zheng Zhang encourages fellow Chinese students to work.

The 20-year-old psychology and pre-pharmacy major will do his final presentation for rhetoric class this semester on the importance of Chinese and American students spending time together, to not be so segregated on campus. He also encourages Chinese students to get involved with activities; he spent two semesters as a DJ at the student radio station, with a show on Chinese music, and he’s involved with two campus Christian groups.

In his first year at the UI, he took four English-as-a-second-language classes, required based on the score of his ESL exam when he arrived.

“More importantly I hung out with American friends and they helped me,” he said.

While all international students must take an English proficiency test, Pat Parker, associate director of admissions operations and policy at ISU, said the test-taking culture in China can focus on memorization to pass exams. Many of the students see it as a hurdle to pass but are focusing on just passing the test, rather than on learning English, Parker said.

That led to some disconnect once they got to ISU and their language skills were not as good as expected, she said.

Starting with students admitted for the 2012 summer semester, ISU will change its English proficiency admission requirements, so that in addition to a required overall score of 71, students need to get a minimum score on two of the test’s subsections — speaking and writing.

“With those sections, it’s much less easy to memorize and get good scores,” Parker said. “I think the Chinese market is maturing and as we get to know each other better, I think some of these things will work themselves out.”