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Influx of Students From China Puts University to Unexpected Test

Karin Fischer, a senior reporter at The Chronicle, covers international issues.
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Photo by Susan Tusa for The Chronicle.

International students, many of whom are from China, gather outside a sports facility at Michigan State during orientation. Photo by Susan Tusa for The Chronicle.

When I met her, Cambria Sobolewski had just gotten her first passport. The Michigan State University student grew up a couple of hours from Canada, in Muskegon, Mich., yet had never been across the border.

That might make Ms. Sobolewski seem like an odd choice to interview for an article I wrote about the first-year college experience of Chinese students. But a significant share of the students on the floor where she served as a resident assistant were Chinese. And this past spring Ms. Sobolewski was getting on a plane for the first time—to Beijing.

The spring-break trip was the brainchild of Kathy M. Collins, who heads residence education and housing services at the university. With the influx of Chinese undergraduates on the Michigan State campus, Ms. Collins wanted to help some of her residence-hall staff better understand the issues that this cohort of students faced. She hoped that the staff members would come to better appreciate what it was like to be an outsider living in a foreign culture.

“I want them to experience someplace where their language is not spoken, where things are different,” Ms. Collins told me before the trip. “I want their eyes, their senses opened.”

My article is a look at three of nearly 1,000 Chinese freshmen navigating their first year, far from home, at Michigan State. But with so many new students on the campus, it was inevitable that the impact be not only on the individual but on the institution as well.

That’s something Michigan State is not alone in grappling with. As the number of Chinese students at American colleges has doubled in the past five years, institutions across the country are being challenged to meet their needs.

At Michigan State last August, I spent a day with the academic-advising staff at the business school, during international-student orientation. Business is by far the most popular area of study for Chinese students there; hundreds spilled across much of a large auditorium for an early-morning orientation.

For the clutch of business advisers, it would be a nearly 12-hour day of back-to-back appointments. They were, said Eileen M. Wilson, the business school’s assistant dean for undergraduate education, “running triage.” The students were far too many for the small advising crew. So Ms. Wilson came in to help, as did several faculty members. Reinforcements had come, too, by way of the nursing school. Few international students opt to pursue a nursing degree, so their advisers were free to pitch in.

The advisers were pleasant, efficient, and knowledgeable, but the strain was clear. Incoming international students are the last to register for classes, and space in many courses was tight. At one point, Dwight Handspike, assistant director of undergraduate academic services, got on the phone with the mathematics department to ask for extra sections of calculus to meet the demand.

Yes, the process was tough, the advisers told me, but their real concern was what would happen in two years’ time, when students declared their majors. There simply weren’t enough spots in the business school to accommodate the interest.

A few months later, I sat down with Lou Anna K. Simon, Michigan State’s president. It was just before homecoming, and the restaurant at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, where Ms. Simon and I met, was filled with green-clad alumni exchanging back slaps and “How have you been’s.” It was hard not to note the difference between this crowd and the composition of the incoming class, one in eight of whom were from China.

Ms. Simon didn’t duck the question: Michigan State’s Chinese population had grown far more rapidly than anyone had anticipated. “We’re at a point where I thought we’d be two, three, four years from now,” she said. “Now we have to manage that growth and make sure we have support programs in place to meet the needs.”

But as anyone who has spent time on a large campus knows, such places are highly decentralized and can be slow to change. Multiple offices and departments each had a piece of the pie: housing and counseling services, dining halls, academic support, the Office for International Students and Scholars. Yang Wang, a math professor originally from China, went to a meeting organized by the provost to talk about some of the issues facing Chinese students. “What struck me,” he said, “is that no one knew each other.”

The international office was the gateway for foreign students. It handled their visas, helped them navigate the DMV and other government offices, held programs to smooth the transition to American life. But although its staff members had plenty of experience working with international students, primarily on the graduate level, the influx of so many 18- and 19-year-olds, most from a single country, was creating unexpected difficulties. For instance, the office traditionally brought in students from overseas a week before others, to hold a special orientation and give them time to acclimate. But the practice had the unintended consequence of letting them form circles of friends among other Chinese students before the Americans even arrived.

One Friday afternoon, I tagged along with Peter Briggs, the international-student director, to a meeting of Project Explore, an informal advisory group of Chinese students. Together they talked through a variety of issues, from a student who hadn’t been going to class for weeks to ways to improve orientation back in China before students even come to the United States. “My brain trust,” Mr. Briggs said.

Project Explore is one response at Michigan State to the increased Chinese presence. Elsewhere on the campus, Mandarin wording has been added to signs. Dining halls have altered their menus to better suit Chinese palates; last fall several cooks traveled to China to learn how to prepare popular dishes.

For Ms. Sobolewski, the resident assistant, her week in China was eye-opening. She didn’t know what she was eating, couldn’t understand the language. At Beijing Normal University, she was surprised to find six students living in a single room. “It helped me understand what it might be like for international students first coming here,” she said. “It was like living a day in their life.”

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