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August 25, 09

NEWS / Chinese Student Associations Help Newcomers Adjust

From airport pickups to Chinese cultural activities, students help students

By Jeffrey Thomas
Staff Writer

Washington — One of the nicest things that can happen when you are coming for the first time to a foreign country to study is to find someone waiting for you on arrival who speaks your language and whisks you off from the airport to the brave new academic world you have chosen.

Students from China are fortunate that on many American campuses there is a Chinese students association (CSA) that greets and helps newcomers. In fact, Jin Yan, the vice president of the CSA at the University of Maryland and a graduate student in mathematical statistics, sees picking up newcomers at the airport and providing them with a temporary place to live as the biggest help she can provide.

But CSAs do a lot more than meet and greet.

The Harvard Chinese Students and Scholars Association, like many similar organizations, takes new Chinese students to registration offices and banks, advises which mobile phone plan to choose and shows them supermarkets and shopping centers.

“To get them adapted to life as a graduate student, we try to instill courage and knowledge through either organized meetings or casual talking,” says Wen Zhou, a Harvard doctoral degree student in biological and biomedical sciences. “We give them general advice on how to find good labs, what can be planned for different career tracks and what is not realistic. We are probably trying to accommodate them not to Boston, but specifically to Harvard, a highly competitive place with vast resources available.”

Offers of admission to prospective graduate students from China grew 13 percent in 2009, the fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth. The latest figures were part of a report issued August 20 by the Council of Graduate Schools.

As of 2007-2008, China was the second leading country of origin for international students in the United States with 81,127 students (up almost 20 percent from the previous year). India is first.

Two-thirds of Chinese students are enrolled in graduate programs, while one-fifth are enrolled as undergraduates and the rest are in various training courses.

Jin Yan doesn’t see American culture as a big leap for new Chinese students at the University of Maryland, where the numbers of new Chinese students are growing. “We really still hold a Chinese life here,” she said. It’s up to the students themselves whether they want to get involved with the larger community.

“Make your own decisions,” is her advice to newcomers.

Wen Zhou sees new students for whom life in America is an easy fit because many have already visited the United States or other Western countries via on-site interviews, open houses or tours.

But for some students, the international experience is something new and challenging. “American culture is apparently a big leap for most students and scholars who spend their undergrad years in China. Few of them can completely overcome the language and cultural barrier, though they generally have no difficulty in scientific communication. In our point of view, it is not absolutely necessary to become a true American. Rather, we should keep our Chinese characters as long as we find a way to make friends with people from all over the world,” Zhou said.

Grace You, a doctoral degree student in Harvard’s Department of Neurobiology, agrees. “Many students in China nowadays watch American movies and dramas, have easy access to the Internet and are capable of reading things in English, and might have friends who are already in the States. But even so, American culture is still a big leap for most of them. Observing something as an outsider is definitely different than experiencing it on your own.”

Most Chinese student associations consider it part of their mission to organize Chinese cultural events and help create a greater awareness of Chinese culture among Americans.

Zhou also enjoys meeting people and helping them. “Not until you talk with all kinds of people would you realize the diversity of life, nor would you find out how communication can inspire and elevate them,” Zhou said, adding: “My purpose is to make most people happy with life.”

Her advice to prospective students is to make sure they really love the major they are planning to pursue. “Think carefully before making a decision, rather than follow what everyone else is doing. Gather as much information as possible. You will never ask too many people.”

You advises prospective students to think clearly about why they want to study in the United States. “Be open to the outside world and interact with people. Though from time to time you will feel lonely, struggle with the language barrier and culture difference, and miss home, but if you keep trying you will be good.”

“The learning environment here is really stimulating, and resources are ample,” she added. “You need to make the most of it. All your efforts eventually will be paid off.”

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing provides extensive information on the visa application process, including forms for applying electronically and information on how to make an appointment and visa wait times.


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