Chinese students offer views on liberal arts education

Chinese international students often hang out in the Strong MPR. Featured above is one of their games nights, where they play “Werewolf,” a popular strategy game, among friends./ Courtesy of the Chinese Students' Community

It is nigh impossible to write an internationally focused series of articles and not write about China. The waves of Chinese students leaving China for locations as geographically and culturally diverse as Singapore, Korea, Australia, the U.K., Canada and the U.S. are only growing. The Chinese Ministry of Education reports that in 2015 alone, a whopping 523,700 students left China to study abroad: more than triple those of India, which ranked second.

As my column in last week’s issue of The Miscellany News made clear, studying abroad is competitive for Korean students. However, it is even more so for Chinese students. Since around 2012, more than 90 percent of Chinese students studying abroad were self-sponsored and received no financial aid. Ivy Teng ’21 explained her hypothesis: “[I] don’t know any Chinese student who gets FA [financial aid]. There are so many of us; you can always find another student with [the] same competence who doesn’t need financial [aid].” As a result, stakes are high and competition is fierce.

Even though Korea packed a surprising international punch, in absolute terms it is no match for China due to its relative size. The sheer number of the 329,000 Chinese students coming to the U.S., coupled with their reluctance to apply for need-based financial aid, explains how Chinese students contribute more than 30 percent of the $30 billion and above spent by internationals in the U.S during 2014-2015.

Xiaoting Hu ’20, Alexandra Lau ’21 and Teng believe that Chinese students are stereotyped to be good at sciences and math and to be shyer than their American counterparts. They also feel that Chinese education is test-based and memorization-oriented, focusing more on passive learning than the active and critical thinking expected at Vassar. Although they do agree on these aspects of Chinese education, they have a contrasting range of strong opinions when comparing Chinese universities to Vassar.

Hu is very enthusiastic about Vassar’s education and critical of Chinese education: “Education here is all about real growth and ideas. I can go to office hours, have intellectual conversations with professors or just talk about life, fun and random ideas; professors challenge me to really think by myself and push me further. In China, extracurricular activities were just for the sake of formality, with no real content. The only grade that matters is the final exam result…including all of one’s subject scores and rankings.” The difference in structure may result from the relative availability of educational resources per student—Vassar is able to afford to foster a more holistic approach and provide ample access to academic resources compared to Chinese institutions.

On the other side of the spectrum stands Lau. While not outright laudatory, she does see merit in the Chinese education system: “Memorization does have its uses, albeit limited; mapping out essays is easier when you have all the facts you need in your head. Grading criteria is also murkier here … The lack of clear guidelines makes studying more difficult as well…and questioning readings, critical thinking, etc. are some things I find difficult as well.”

Teng looks at the two systems from a different standpoint: liberal arts vs. non-liberal arts: “In China, once a student enters a university—even for the best universities in China, they will be limited to only one decided major, and won’t have as [many] interesting classes to choose. Vassar provides free choices for students with different interests.” For Teng, who does not fit the mold of a student studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics, having plenty of choice and the freedom to explore is a big plus.

Another salient aspect of Vassar’s liberal arts education is its progressive principles. After coming to Vassar, Teng has become more aware of the difference in values between Vassar and China: “Vassar is definitely inclusive for people identifying in different ways; in China, however, people’s knowledge about gender is still simply binary. I pay more attention to certain languages and behaviors that contains biases that I didn’t realize before.” Although it might seem strange to think of Vassar as having a “culture,” its unique climate certainly invites comparison.

Many agree that Vassar’s inclusive attitude is beneficial, yet Lau argues that it can be alienating in practice. She opined, “It can be sometimes tiring to be treated as a novelty…I found the ‘You Belong Here’ series [staged during orientation week to promote inclusion] well-meaning but frankly, a little patronizing—assuming we belong because the Vassar student body is willing to accept us.” It can be difficult to find a balance between celebrating differences and being treated equally.

An additional point of contrast between Chinese and other international students is their likelihood of returning home after studying abroad. Whether it be right after college, graduate school or a few years of work experience, 80 percent of Chinese students returned to China, according to the recent statistics from the Ministry of Education. In this sense, foreign education is viewed as an investment to give them an edge in the job market in their own country as opposed to permanently immigrating abroad. However, Teng thinks this could change as the opportunities back home shrink: “[T]he market for econ students is getting more and more competitive, and almost filled, so for me and my peers, econ is no longer ‘the secure major that gets you [to] stay in the US.’ ”

If Chinese students perceive fewer returns from the investment of studying abroad, it could tighten the belts of American colleges by over $10 billion. However, studying abroad is not only a financial investment; it is an investment in education, emotional growth and personal satisfaction. No student, even an Econ major, could put a price on those returns.

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