China: destination education?

This week I mused over whether getting a serious degree from a Chinese university helps or hinders the qualified foreign student. It was a fun write up, giving me the chance to interview a couple of Stanford friends and advertise their fabulousness to China Daily readers. Read it here or in the paper:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-04/30/content_9796857.htm

When Chinese students and parents hear that I went to a certain American university, they perk up with interest. I know then that the usual torrent of questions about how to study abroad is coming my way. I can understand the curiosity – Chinese are scrambling to leave the country for higher education.

But recently, I’ve seen more foreign students making their way here for schooling, and not just for ostensibly “academic” programs like language exchanges. There is a growing number of high caliber students coming to top Chinese universities to obtain “serious” degrees.

Enrolling in a Chinese university seems like a curious choice for a foreigner. Why would they give up the comforts of a Western university campus, the ease of doing coursework in their native language, and the rich opportunities that follow a gilded degree to bunk in “foreign students” accommodation over here?

I talked to a few Sinophiles to find out what motivated them to embark on their unusual academic adventures in Beijing. Alexander Tuerpe, a Berliner, is finishing his MA in Regional and Urban Economics at the School of Government at Beida (Peking University). For him, coming here was a no-brainer. “Because I have an interest in Chinese political economy, attending a program in China, taught in Chinese, with Chinese students, just made sense,” he said.

A full scholarship offered by the Chinese government further boosted Beijing’s attractiveness. “I didn’t apply to American schools because I didn’t want to pay for a master’s program, nor wait another six months for the admissions cycle to begin.”

Ian Monroe, who hails from a hippie town in northern California, is a visiting scholar from Stanford University. He is here on a “trial run” to get comfortable with Beijing applying to the International MBA Program at Tsinghua. He came here via the long route: “China is the 17th country I’ve worked in on clean technology and renewable energy projects since graduating from college.” Wherever his travels took him, from Brazil to sub-Saharan Africa, Ian saw China’s influence in his chosen field. So, at last, he came to Beijing to figure out “the biggest piece of the energy puzzle” from the inside.

Eric Meltzer, also a Californian, is a freshman studying biology at Beida. His bold decision to come here for college was partly driven by his love for Chinese culture, which he developed after studying the language, Kun opera, and calligraphy in the US.

Luckily, Beida is also a happening place for Eric to further his other passion, biology. A self-described member of the “international biology mafia” – a group of science die-hards who meet up in global competitions – Eric went about his Sinophilia in a similarly hard-core way. “I only did one semester of Chinese before coming here. My first semester was horrible. My teachers assistant wouldn’t let me type my lab report or write in English, so I spent 12 hours handwriting it in pinyin.”

After hearing from these three students, I was sold on the idea that Chinese universities can offer plenty to foreign students, whether they’re here to develop subject area knowledge or to immerse themselves in everything Chinese. But what happens when they want to leave? Can they translate what they learn in a Chinese academic setting into jobs back home?

Alexander hasn’t had an issue. He was recently accepted into PhD programs in Political Science and Economics (with a concentration on China) at Stanford and Harvard. Far from hampering his career, his tenacity in grinding through two years of lectures and papers entirely in Chinese actually helped “signal his seriousness for China research” to admissions deans at prestigious American universities.

Ian, the would-be Tsinghua MBA student, is thinking about his exit strategy, but isn’t too worried. Tsinghua is his top choice precisely because of the international mobility it can provide him in the future. “When I graduate, I will also get a certificate from Sloan (MIT’s School of Management, Tsinghua’s partner school), so I will have the brand name recognition of Tsinghua in China and the same for Sloan in Western countries.”

For Eric, being at a Chinese university has also opened more doors. This summer, he will work at a laboratory in Paris, which another Beida graduate helped him arrange. In the longer term, Eric plans to return to the US for doctoral studies in biology. “Beida and Tsinghua are top feeder schools to American doctoral programs,” he said with confidence. Career aside, Beida has also enriched Eric’s personal life – he has converted a lab mate into his girlfriend, who, like him, is headed for PhD studies in the US.

What’s the final verdict on the foreign students’ experience? My three friends gave it a thumbs-up. After a few wild, grueling, and fruitful years on Beijing campuses, they will go on to share their guts and glory war stories, possibly convincing even more foreign students to follow in their footsteps.

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