As I read the Wall Street Journal article, “Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on US Campuses” my heart sank.  I felt my heart’s sadness for the Chinese student, Chutian Shao, mentioned in the article, and simultaneously deep disappointment at our institutions of higher learning for allowing this craziness to go on — and impatience with the faculty members cited, who criticized students as being “woefully underprepared” for American universities. We must remember they were admitted by their university admissions office.  No doubt, the WSJ article reveals the crevasse that exists in many of our universities.
I’ve had the amazing privilege of providing acculturation support to international students studying in the US. Most of them are Asian. Most of them are Chinese. For those of us familiar with universities, we know the numbers of Chinese students have skyrocketed in the last several years. We know the main driver is the financial upside they provide for our universities, as they see enrollment among Americans languishing, with no change in sight.
When I was first doing this work almost a decade ago, I thought universities simply didn’t provide requisite support because the influx was so new and sudden. They must not understand. I feverishly approached schools to provide them with solutions that I thought would alleviate the suffering of these international students.  My heart ached when, with alarming frequency, students would would cry and sob as they talked to me after my presentations on campus, because they finally saw someone who understood and empathized with their immense challenges as international students in the US. I put programs together on acculturation, on storytelling, on networking.  I recommended longer orientations for international students so they could learn how to live and survive in the US before the avalanche of classwork buried them in academics. I pressed on the need for schools to teach small talk and proactively integrate international students into the social fabric of the community, with American students taking equal responsibility for inclusion. I advocated for cultural training for faculty and advisors who were on the front lines because international students, especially from Asia, just didn’t show up in classrooms, social interactions, career fairs the way Americans did — and I thought it was an imperative for educators to utilize pedagogy or counseling styles that would adapt to this burgeoning foreign population.
I have been incredibly fortunate to work with advisors and administrators who care deep to the core and have pushed their universities to provide more support for these students. I have admired their empathy, tenacity and advocacy. But these front line advisors are overburdened.  As the population of “high touch” international students have skyrocketed on campus, advisors have not been added in commensurate numbers. Most can barely maintain the same level of support they provided, before the deluge of international students.
As I marched on toward my mission to support these students, the “light” was revealed to me one day, when one of my university clients said, “Judy, you know this is all about the money. Don’t you? They keep admitting these students because they pay ‘full freight’. The Masters programs keep getting added because they’re huge money makers. There’s such pressure on our admissions office to keep these students coming.” As a business person, it quickly became clear to me that the universities needed these international Chinese students. And so, I thought naively that given their importance to universities, the requisite services for these students would, of course, come along.  It was just a matter of time. But I was mistaken. Year after year, I would see international student programs supported and then dropped. There seemed to be a lack of strategic vision to address the “operations” side of admitting these large numbers of students who learned, lived and thought in an entirely different way from Americans. As one Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs said to me, “they’ll be gone in one year anyway and a new class will be here.” I never respected the institution in quite the same way after that conversation.
As I watched this happen, the cynical side of me thought that because the Chinese students are polite and don’t complain (hallmark of the Confucian upbringing) — they can be conveniently ignored. Though large in numbers, they are Invisible. Universities can blithely pretend all is well. The gold rush continues.
Yet I’ve met so many well-meaning university administrators and staff members who want the best for these students, who lament about the system of higher education and its resistance to change. Faculty is king and tenured faculty are untouchable. Thus, innovation and systemic change are simply nonstarters. Many non-faculty members I’ve met want to create a better outcome but feel their hands are tied. Yet, time is the final arbiter. We see that Clayt Christensen’s “disruptive innovation” is hitting universities with the growth of MOOCs and for-profit online universities.  Change is being compelled even if resistance is stiff because the survival of some schools depend on their ability to adapt.  In the same way, the presence of and ongoing need for international students to sustain some schools is just as “disruptive” to our universities.
If schools truly claim to create global citizens and global campuses, it’s time that the entire educational institution refits itself to deliver on that promise. Study abroad is not the only path for American students to be internationalized. With startling ease, they simply need to turn around and engage with their fellow international students in class, in the cafeteria, on the lawn. It’s not just about small talk, it’s about engaging international students in a meaningful, personal and authentic way. It’s about including foreign students in everyday events. American students need to learn the humility of listening and observing other ways of doing and being without assuming that all things US are right and the best way forward. If our American students are ever to have global success, their ability to embrace “the other” is a requisite for success.
American students have told me in interviews that they don’t know how to interact with international Chinese students, just as much as the international students are befuddled by Americans. University educators need to proactively and programmatically teach all constituents (students, faculty, staff) how to interact with difference. We are a country that wears proudly our respect for human rights, yet run away from truly intimate encounters with people who are different — whether it’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or internationalism. A community doesn’t exist because we cohabitate. We are community when we greet each other with care, share stories about our families and reveal our deepest hopes and fears. We are community when we share our beloved native foods at our dinner tables, not just around campus cultural celebrations.
Perhaps creating community is a new and innovative concept for universities. Community is not about intellectualism. It’s about humanism.
Making the international (largely Chinese) student population “work” on US university campuses requires a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted, innovative approach. There is no quick fix. It requires vision, strategy, and resolve, starting at the very top. It calls on engagement, commitment and accountability from all quarters of the university.
From where I stand, what I see are young human beings from half way across the world, in our land yearning to belong, to be welcomed, to be successful human beings. They come from a culture so dichotomously different from the US. How could we expect these young people to make the journey of growth and learning on their own? How could we expect them to know the questions to ask when they don’t even know what they should ask? How could we expect them to “think” American when they’re not? Would we expect our American students to know how to integrate into universities in China on their own?  Would we be satisfied if Chinese universities didn’t help American students integrate into their Chinese communities? Would we blame our children for hanging out with other American students and for speaking their mother tongue in a foreign land? Would we hold our children or the Chinese universities accountable for our children’s welfare and success?
When university admissions officers, under the direction of the President, Provost, Dean and their trustees, admit and enroll international students from China and elsewhere, they are all obliged to take care of them. Whether for the practical purpose of revenues or for a more esteemed mission, the buck stops with the university. Isn’t the mission of higher education to go beyond simply enriching the intellect?  Isn’t the mission of American universities to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience such that students leave their campuses a more aware, broadly-minded and confident human being than when they arrived?
I choose to believe that American universities and its leadership are called to a higher mission. If so, then the status quo must go. There must be a mission that doesn’t just hang on the walls, but realized. It’s time to consider what systemic changes are needed to make our campuses not only global, but globally inclusive.