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Professor Yingyi Ma Speaks about Chinese Students in the United States in Online Event

Hui Li ’21

Co-Chief Graphic Designer

On Thursday, November 5, nearly 50 members of the Holy Cross community participated in a special Zoom event called “Chinese College Students in the United States: A Conversation with Yingyi Ma.”

Dr. Ke Ren, assistant professor of Chinese and east Asian history at the College of the Holy Cross, organized the event alongside his colleagues from the Asian Studies Program, the Office of International Students, and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He has a personal connection to the topic; at the beginning of the November 5 event, he shared that he is descended from international students who settled and started a family in Canada. He himself came to the United States as a Chinese-Canadian international student.

In a statement to The Spire, Professor Ren wrote that he found Dr. Yingyi Ma’s recent work Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education on a list of books relating to China Studies earlier this year. “While there have been a few books on Chinese students in the U.S. in past decades, Professor Ma’s is the most comprehensive and up-to-date, focusing on the socioeconomic context of a new generation of millennial students from China,” shared Professor Ren.  He added, “The breadth of her research (covering liberal arts college and research universities) and the variety of experiences she uncovers are some of the most valuable aspects of her book.”

In October, there was a faculty workshop called “Supporting International Students in Uncertain Times.” Assistant Dean of International Students Christina Chen helped promote Professor Ma’s talk after she heard Professor Ren mention the book at the session. She and Professor Ren worked with the Asian Studies Program and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to invite Professor Ma to Holy Cross.

At the event, Dr. Ma introduced herself as an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University. She is the director of the Asian/Asian American studies program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at the college and also has served as a Public Intellectual Fellow on the National Committee of US-China Relations.

Professor Ma received her Ph.D in sociology from John Hopkins University. She received a degree in Nanjing University in southern China before applying to graduate school in the United States. She arrived in the country as an international graduate student in 2000 and finished her dissertation in 2007.

According to Professor Ma, the idea for Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, which was published by Columbia University Press in February 2020, came from a motivation to “move beyond the unidimensional and dehumanizing coverage [of Chinese students] in the media.” She stated that many of the conversations about international Chinese students center around the “Chinese money” that wealthy Chinese parents use to pay their children’s tuition fees at American colleges. Many sources tend to use shallower analyses from financial and economic perspectives when writing about Chinese students.

While the number of Chinese students studying in American colleges has been increasing in the past decade, the reason for this trend is not purely economic. It is also political. According to Professor Ma’s analyses of international student enrollment in the United States, the major “turning point” for this increase happened before the 2008 economic crisis, when the Bush administration relaxed the visa policies that foreign students needed to follow in order to study in the United States. Furthermore, there were several changes in China that affected Chinese families’ abilities to pay for tuition at American college. The renmingbi (RMB), the standard Chinese currency, was gradually more highly appreciated in the international market from 2005 to 2014. There was also a real estate boom that increased the values of many urban properties and helped more Chinese parents find the money to afford college in the United States.

Photo courtesy of Syracuse University’s website. Graphic design by Hui Li ’21.

Professor Ma’s research focuses on a more sociological approach to these trends, and she interviewed hundreds of Chinese students in four-year American institutions and did fieldwork in several public and private high schools in China. Working from 2012 to 2018, she wanted to create a “more balanced and nuanced portrait of this new wave of Chinese students.” Furthermore, she wanted to focus on “capturing the voices and experiences of Chinese students” in her study. The participants in her research came from different family backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and educational experiences.  

She noted that the backgrounds of the students she worked with is “much more diverse than we observe on the surface, and than [how] it is captured in the media.” She describes the group as “privileged but diverse.” A majority of international Chinese students studying in the United States are from urban areas in China and rely on family funds from parents who hold either college or advanced graduate degrees. Many parents of international Chinese students are college professors and tend to lead their children toward studying in the United States, a country that many Chinese people associate with a high-quality education.  

Professor Ma shared an anecdote about one of the students she interviewed in her study. She met a lower-class student living in Shanghai; neither of his parents had gone to college, and they could only afford American tuition fees after selling their apartment in the city center and moving into the margins of Shanghai. She shared a quote from this student. “Chinese parents tend to sacrifice for their children and want the best for them. Here in Shanghai people consider studying in the U.S. is the best. It is just natural to follow the trend.” Professor Ma stated that this story, along with many others from working-class backgrounds, indicates that it is “not just the super elite who can go to college in the U.S.”

Contrary to some enduring stereotypes about Chinese students, many of them who study in the United States are not only focused on education. Professor Ma stated that international Chinese students “want to be global citizens” and “want to make American friends.” However, according to Chapter 5 of Professor Ma’s book, many of them struggle to “break out of the co-national, co-ethnic bubble” because of the cultural differences between how Chinese students and American students and the misconception that Chinese students are “uninterested in socializing with Americans.” Due to these barriers, along with negative stereotypes that Chinese students are rude, bad at speaking and understanding English, aloof, or unadaptable, many Chinese students tend to socialize with other Chinese students at the same institution or with other international students on campus.

First-generation international students are more likely to struggle with making American friends and gaining the social confidence to speak up in class than international students from more privileged backgrounds. Chinese students from lower-class backgrounds, however, share the same pressure to get into the best schools that they can. In the past, a student’s success depended exclusively on a high-stakes exam called the Gaokao. Much of the pressure to do well comes from what Professor Ma calls an “Educational Gospel” that states, “College is salvation, [it] save[s] your life from bitterness and hardship.”

However, in more recent years, studying abroad has become an alternate source of “salvation.” Since the Gaokao is not needed to apply for colleges outside of China, applying to study at a foreign institution started to be seen as a “liberation” from the test-oriented education system, and the United States has been a popular country for a college education because of its high-quality institutions and importance in the global labor market, which values workers who have a proficient communication skills in English.

Professor Ma calls the shift from Gaokao-focused Chinese education to less test-heavy American education “paradoxical,” because while Chinese students have less pressure to get a high score on an exam as large as the Gaokao, they also have to take several other exams to get into an American college. Many international students still take AP courses and study for the SAT like domestic American students do. Chinese students also have to prove their English proficiency by taking the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

These extra tests can add new stresses for Chinese students, whose families and friends may be influenced by what Professor Ma calls a “ranking obsession” that drives some international students to transfer to a different American college with a more attractive rank after spending one or two years at the college that they first enroll in. The perceptions of college rankings stem partly from a lack of information about American colleges in Chinese families, who also add an element of family honor in a student’s success.

According to the information that Professor Ma gathered in her research, most Chinese students apply to American colleges after completing courses in either a Chinese public school or a Chinese school with international classes that specialize in preparing students to study in the United States. Some of the wealthiest families can afford to send their children to Chinese private schools or even to American private schools in order to prepare to study at an American college. Many American colleges actively recruit Chinese students from schools with a special international division, which requires interviews with both prospective students and their parents to ensure that they are the best prepared to study in the United States.

Professor Ma closed her presentation with some concluding thoughts on her findings. She stated that ambition and anxiety “define the experiences of this new wave of undergraduates abroad.” She tracks the largest driver of anxiety to the differences between Chinese and American education systems. Lastly, she said, “American universities need to be proactive in reaching out directly to Chinese students and families and provide more systematic and sustainable support, especially for first-generation students.”

During the Q&A session after the talk, Professor Ma was asked about how domestic students can help make Chinese students feel more welcome in the college community. She said, “Reach out directly to Chinese students and support them. Institutions largely fail in tapping that good will [of reaching out to recruit Chinese students in the first place].” Professor Ma added that she has some “strong criticisms” about current responses to issues affecting Chinese students, saying that there is a “missed opportunity” to include international students in the general student body by leaving the isolation of international students unaddressed.

She calls upon American students, especially those with “hidden talents” pertaining to an interest in China, Chinese culture, and/or the Chinese language, to help create a more inclusive environment for Chinese students by socializing with them. Professor Ma mentions that colleges should expand their sessions for international students into broader “connecting spaces” so new students can make a few friends earlier in the school year. “It’s about bringing people together [throughout the year], not just at orientation,” she said.

Professor Ma’s research took place before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the environment surrounding Chinese students in the United States is sure to change, although more studies are needed to gain a deeper insight on the situation. Professor Ren mentioned how Chinese students have been caught in between political strife on the international scene that have “been compounded by the U.S-China trade war, media censorship and disinformation campaigns in both countries, as well as the anti-immigrant and xenophobic visa policies of the Trump administration.” He also wrote about how these social tensions have worsened this year with “the talk of the ‘China virus’ and an alarming rise in anti-Asian racism around the country.”

In a statement to The Spire, Dean Chen wrote about how she recognized some of the themes that Professor Ma discussed in her presentation and in her book in her conversations with international Chinese students at Holy Cross. “Students come to the U.S. desiring friendship with U.S. students, but often are met with aloofness,” she clarified. She also agreed with the concept of “losing America,” a phrase mentioned in Chapter 5 of Professor Ma’s book, in that Chinese students’ expectations of the United States and American culture are vastly different from what they actually see once they move onto campus in Worcester because a lot of the portrayals of American life come from unrealistic movies and music videos. This, she wrote, adds stress to international students, and this is exasperated by the “significant [rise in the] climate of xenophobia from the U.S. government [that] comes out in policies that restrict – or are attempting to restrict – the access of Chinese students to U.S. higher education and post-graduate work opportunities.”

Both Professor Ren and Dean Chen shared optimistic statements about Chinese students at Holy Cross. Professor Ren wrote about international Chinese students, “They are a transnational and mobile generation that plays a significant part in shaping the ‘global’ character of this college (among many other institutions), yet also may have quite different experiences – and as Professor Ma put it, ambitions and anxieties – from Asian American students and other students of color. As we continue to build a diverse, cosmopolitan campus community – as teachers, classmates, [and] supporting staff – we can always benefit from a better understanding of each distinct group in our college!”Dean Chen wrote, “I see Chinese students thriving at Holy Cross. As Prof. Ma’s research demonstrated, when Chinese students continue to be courageous and committed to participating in campus life, e.g., through music, student organizations, theatre–and their academic programs — they have positive experiences.  And when US students demonstrate openness to Chinese (and other international) students, they, too, gain new perspectives on our shared world.  These people-to-people connections are the most important reason for the US to continue to support students coming into the US as well as US students going abroad.  After the COVID emergency passes, I hope we will see a vibrant increase in global sojourners!”

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