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Andy* never expected to see a Chinese food cart next to the gates of Columbia University.
“I was surprised when I saw it,” he says of the newly opened cart, which frequently draws long lines of Chinese students. “I thought, this place is getting less and less American.”
Andy is from China. He is tall, lanky, and sports metal glasses beneath his swept haircut. Despite language difficulties, he came from Guangdong province at the age of 18, hoping to immerse himself in American culture and make white friends (with, he says, “blue eyes, yellow hair, and a hairy face”). But now a senior in Columbia College, he has come to accept a different social reality.
“Here, there are a lot of events I’ve never thought about taking part in,” he says. “Bacchanal? Nope. Orgo Night? Never been there. The Varsity Show? Haven’t seen it. In the first place, you feel like the environment is not very friendly to you—so you voluntarily limit yourself. But also, I’m just not that interested.”
This is not just about a misfit. This is the story of a rarely discussed but complicated group of students whose lives are increasingly intertwined with bigger questions of global politics and race—Chinese international students. This is the story of how they’re changing Columbia.
The Hottest Game in Town
Five years ago, there were 929 Chinese international students enrolled at Columbia, comprising about one-seventh of the University’s international population. But by fall 2012, the Chinese international student population has exploded to 2,254 students, making up almost one-third of all Columbia international students. Because the University does not release breakdowns for all schools, it is unclear how many of these students are undergraduates—though the general consensus is a lot.
What is clearer is that the increased Chinese student presence is one result of a deliberate and determined effort by Columbia’s leadership to go “global.” During a 2008 fireside chat, University President Lee Bollinger said that Columbia strives to obtain the “best minds of the world,” regardless of geographic location or nationality. In 2012, Barnard President Debora Spar told the New York Times in no uncertain terms, “we’re growing [the international student population] dramatically.”
In the rhetoric of today’s American higher education professionals, going “global” is almost always a good thing. What they don’t say is that it usually means going to China.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, foreign student growth in the United States is largely due to “double-digit growth from China, primarily at the undergraduate level.” Student growth from other countries, such as India, South Korea, and Canada, has flatlined in recent years, owing in part to the economic downturn.
That’s why China, with its continued economic growth, is the hottest game in town. One need only look at the University of Delaware, which drove Chinese international enrollment from just eight students in 2007 to 517 students in 2012; or Barnard, which has seen a 540 percent increase in applications from China over the last seven years; or the other Ivy League schools, which all maintain deeply funded, aggressively competitive Chinese outreach efforts, to see that the race is on.
“It’s about keeping up with the Joneses,” explains one former Columbia administrator. “You have one of the most crazy-interested-in-education markets in the world, and a very large number of the population is now capable of funding their kids to go to the U.S. Let’s say you let Northwestern, UChicago, and Georgetown sort of run you over in the China market. That would really damage your international brand, which is something that schools need to take into consideration.”
“Sadly we still live in the world where the more students that apply, the more prestigious your school is. So to stay relevant in this market, you have to up your China game.”
But while today’s mad scramble for Chinese students appears to represent a broad consensus in higher education strategy, there was not always as much agreement.
Columbia Provost John Coatsworth told Spectator last semester that the move to a more global university followed intense debate among administrators and faculty during the 1990s.
“It was a really serious issue, the question of whether we would be recruiting abroad for talented students,” said Coatsworth. “Would it change the character of the University? Would it change the mission of the University?”
Welcome to America
Each fall, the new waves of Chinese international students who flood into Morningside Heights face a simple challenge: fitting in. This is harder than it looks.
Andy says that he initially planned to explore new social groups when he arrived. “Even though I wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable hanging out with white people all the time, I was prepared for it,” he said. But, he explains, he didn’t feel like other students were interested in him, or saw beyond his appearance. Most of his close friends now are Chinese.
“I’m not disappointed—I got used to it,” he says matter-of-factly. “Still, would you want to go to China to meet American people?”
Chris Cheung graduated from Columbia last year and remembers finding it difficult to branch out. For him, it was because of the close friendships he formed in the Hong Kong Students and Scholars Society, of which he was president. “Once I found this group of good friends,” he says, “I became comfortable settling down and was less proactive to take advantage of the rich diversity the student community had to offer.”
Yet Chris considers himself “very lucky.” Observing that most international students suffer a sense of “disorientation and displacement,” he says he is thankful to have found a base “rather quickly.”
But these friendship circles are sometimes viewed by bewildered observers as counter-productive forms of “self-segregation.”
One of my friends, a female, Indian international student at Columbia College, says the Chinese international community seems to form an “insular culture and nationality-based community for themselves,” which she describes as “frustrating,” “alienating,” and “completely baffling.” “Why come to an American university, why travel thousands of miles, why seek out this unique educational experience if you’re going to close yourself off from the majority of your peers and just recreate what you could’ve had back home?” she asked.
Indeed, some Chinese international students avoid Columbia’s Chinese community altogether. Barnard senior Natalie Lau grew up attending an American school in Hong Kong and decided to steer clear of Chinese culture clubs at Columbia. “I think I went to a few of their events and I was like, cool, this is so not my scene,” she says. “I’m looking for a place where I can have the freedom to be a part of my culture without necessarily having to be completely submerged in it.”
As Spar advised Asian international students in a recent New York Times article, “Don’t just hang out with people from your country—I think that’s a real risk.”
But “hanging out” is sometimes just the beginning of students’ problems.
Strict immigration laws—kept stubbornly in place by Congress—often prevent even the most well-adjusted foreign students from becoming full members of American society. Lau identifies as “culturally American,” but says it is “pretty much impossible” for her to remain in America after graduation and pursue her dream of teaching or nonprofit work.
As a student on an F-1 visa, she is only allowed to work in the United States for one year following graduation under a program called Optional Practical Training, before she is required to find a company that is willing to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a permanent work visa. However, only corporate and finance jobs come with the resources to sponsor these students, and this severely limits the options of international students with other dreams.
“I’m terrified of the prospect of going home, because I never really fit into Hong Kong culture. Growing up, I never had the freedom to explore what was out there. But I’ve had a taste of freedom. And now, having, in a way, been ruined, I can’t go back,” she says with a rueful laugh.
Other Chinese international students struggle to fully fund their educations. Bollinger was quoted as saying in an April 2012 Spectator article, Columbia does “not have sufficient financial aid for international students.” But whether or not Columbia can fund international students, it does profit from them. As the Spectator article points out, while the international student population grew by 60.1 percent from 2004 to 2011, the University’s income from those students rose by 121.3 percent in the same amount of time.
In this case, there is evidence that money matters are tied into bigger, more complex racial and geopolitical tensions simmering beneath the surface. In the same article from last April, the comments section spiraled into a 57-post thread debating the merits of Chinese international students, with the top-rated comment declaring their increased numbers to be “some sort of sick joke,” accusing “anti-American admissions policies” of arming Chinese students to become “dangerous competitors” to American power.
A comment below says, “Agreed. These Chinese and Asians maybe [sic] smart in math and engineering, but generally cannot speak, read or write English at anywhere near an ivy league [sic] level. Let alone if they know anything about Western philosophy, literature, culture, amd [sic] art. Why are they being admitted?”
And, eight months later, an op-ed by Connor Hailey, a Columbia College sophomore, accused Columbia of admitting “wealthy internationals in the name of diversity, only to turn away an American who could have been the next great statesman.”
Sometimes, though, the motives behind prejudice are less clear.
One of my white friends, a Columbia student, confesses to me privately, “I know it’s wrong, but sometimes I still want to laugh when I hear someone with an Asian accent speaking in class. I’m not sure—I just feel uncomfortable.”
Andy says this discrimination is unfair. “A lot of people think that European accents are sexy and desirable in many ways, but why not Asian ones? Do I need to mimic a European accent to be attractive?”
In addition to reinforcing invisible systems of isolation and marginalization, racial prejudice can have material consequences for Chinese international students’ physical safety.
In April 2008, a Columbia Ph.D. student, Minghui Yu, was killed by traffic at 122nd Street and Broadway as he fled from a black teenager who attacked him after telling his friends, “Look what I do to this one.”
On Oct. 12, 2008, Public Safety reported that seven Columbia students, of whom five were Asian, were assaulted or forcibly groped in a string of coordinated attacks by a group of men.
All of these issues pose hindrances, if not outright threats, to Chinese international students’ integration into the Columbia community—but they are rarely discussed. The irony lies in how visible Chinese international students have become at Columbia—and yet, how utterly invisible they remain when it comes to real discussions about policy or community.
“There are more Chinese here,” says Andy. “But if they just do their own things and they’re not very engaged, not very influential, they’re just simply students.”
This is the plain truth: As much as Columbia touts its global student body, Chinese international students are not treated as equal members of our community.
“An Asian person is like this”
The 2008 admissions brochure, The Blue Album, featured an audacious new declaration: “Columbia University in the City of New York lies at the crossroads of the world.” New York, it boasted, is “the ‘capital of the world’ for just about everything.” But this rhetoric stands in contrast to a persistent sense of confusion on the administration’s part about how exactly to deal with this moment of global metamorphosis.
“We’re already in this amazing international city in a very diverse campus, and I don’t have an answer yet for this,” said Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger in a December 2012 Spectator interview. “But it’s something that we’ve been talking about, how to better capitalize on this.”
Eight months ago, Student Affairs hired Kirin Liquori Terni to be the first director of International Student Programs and Services for Columbia College and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science.
“My responsibilities ensure issues surrounding this population are kept at the forefront,” says Terni in an email interview. Since she began her position, Terni has tried to “enhance the support already in place for international students.” New initiatives, she says, include Summer Advising and Orientation, information sessions in Lerner, a Thanksgiving Day dinner, and programming for students who stay on campus during winter break.
“I am an advocate working to bring attention to this population and its needs, as well as celebrating the richness that our diverse international student make-up adds to campus,” she says, adding, “There is a lot of assessment about where we are and what needs to be done.”
However, the trumpeting of diversity belies a tacit acknowledgement by University officials that they don’t quite understand the different people joining the ranks of the student body.
According to professor Gary Okihiro, the founding director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, the University has often sought to understand its increasingly global student body through what he calls “cultural competence workshops.”
This has been especially important for the main players of the China game: the admissions officers. As a former administrator tells it, admissions officers are very sensitive to “cultural differences” and often seek out support from outside experts to help them understand the “cultural context” of the students they are recruiting and admitting in record numbers.
But by focusing on culture, these efforts may elide the complexity of individual experiences. The workshops are “so that you’re ‘conversant in multicultures,’” Okihiro explains disdainfully. “As in, ‘OK... an Asian person is like this.’ It presumes a sort of homogeneity.”
Crucially, when conversations center on notions of international students’ cultural “needs” and “characteristics,” dialogue is directed away from more troublesome questions about Columbia’s institutional character. Inherent in playing the China game is a truth that nobody wants to fully admit: In trying to become a global university, we are creating tensions within the social and academic fabric of Columbia University—with real consequences for all students’ lives.
To admit this is to concede another unsettling thought: We cannot simply integrate the new population into some notion of Columbia As It Used To Be. A true vision of global engagement must ask a more difficult question: Is a global Columbia willing to work toward true equality for international students? And if so, then how must Columbia change?
As Bollinger said, Columbia strives to find the best minds in the world, regardless of geographic location or nationality. But serious questions about our pedagogy remain. Is the idea of the global university one where the University bestows Western academic and cultural knowledge on to deserving but less enlightened foreigners? Or should the global university be a place to pursue human understanding, where people all over the world are empowered as Columbia stakeholders, enabled to reform the way things are taught and to reshape the way things are done?
As of now, Okihiro argues that Columbia’s interest in international students remains mired in old-world attitudes about civilization. “It appears Columbia, and others of that ilk, are not unlike those who justified imperialism as ‘the white man’s burden,’” he says in an email. “What I mean by that is the ‘uplift’ of subject peoples by a superior, presumably, (Western) civilization and religion (Christianity).”
Additionally, he points out, Columbia has done a poor job of including students from impoverished nations, preferring to focus on regions such as China, where “money is to be had.”
“Self-interest,” says Okihiro, “seems paramount.”
Rethinking the “Global” University
From a macro-analytical standpoint, the China game is a fascinating sociopolitical phenomenon. Driven by an array of colliding systemic factors—intense budget pressure, the rise of China, a discursive embrace of “globalization,” plain-old trend-following, and (arguably) a persistently imperialist ideology, America’s most resourceful schools have made a series of choices that are permanently recalibrating the landscape of global higher education.
But caught in the crossfire of this complex, multibillion-dollar geopolitical game are folks like Andy, who traveled to the United States with an almost pitifully earnest hope of “broadening his horizons.”
Perhaps the greatest learning experience that a global university can offer Andy—and the rest of us—is the opportunity to critically examine the way each of our lives are constituted by shifting intersections of power and discourse. While caught in these webs, students should be given the chance to challenge the idea of the global university itself. A liberal arts academy’s greatest strength is the courage to self-criticize, and this is a tradition that must be upheld whether we are globalizing or not.
One place to start should be a re-examination of the Core Curriculum. While the Global Core requirement is a necessary addition to our Western-centric canon, in practice, its loose structure makes it into an afterthought rather than an effective critique of the predominance of Western ideology. We’re not going to understand our political selves in today’s globalized world after taking courses such as Japanese Monsters or Social Life in Ancient Egypt. If we’re going to recognize the way our identities are mutually constituted, we need to drop the idea of analyzing cultures as distinct, unproblematic units.
As professor Rachel E. Chung, who chairs the University Seminar on Global & Interdisciplinary Core Curricula, argues in an April 2012 Spectator op-ed, we must stop thinking of “the brilliance of the West and diversity of the rest, but on how and what to learn from the civilizations around us, including the West, without losing sight of what has been central and best to one’s self.” The West, she points out, “did not become the ‘West’ on its own.”
Instead of our current open-ended Global Core requirement, how about a single, multidisciplinary survey class about the intersection between globalization and identity, drawing from the best of such fields as ethnic studies, political science, anthropology, and history?
And for Chinese international students, how about reviving Columbia’s dying Asian American studies division to offer courses investigating identity formation in the context of international immigration?
These are not just questions about academics, but questions about our future. Students do not disappear after graduation, but go into the world to become thinkers, leaders, soldiers, parents. As such, the future of U.S.-China relations will be unquestionably mediated through the experiences of the Chinese students in America, including those on our campus. In a 2011 op-ed for The Diplomat, Jiang Xueqin, a prominent voice for education reform, worries that Chinese students returning with “negative impressions of America” will one day “assume the mantles of power” and create foreign policy crises.
That’s why we need to create a critical, reflective global campus community where we go beyond celebrating superficial differences and tackle real questions of power.
Granted, many of Columbia’s Chinese international students have already been untangling these complex notions of identity in their own ways.
“I would be very nerdy, still be speaking terrible Chinglish, less open-minded, but also less distracted by the world if I had stayed in Hong Kong,” concludes Cheung. “An open-minded attitude towards people, ideas, and life,” he says, “is the most valuable gift an American education has given me.”
Lau, too, reflects on a newfound sense of openness. “Here, there’s not only the freedom to not have to be the perfect Asian, but I’ve also found people with whom I don’t have to put up a front,” she says.
As Andy says, “Some people may just want to come, get a degree, and go back home. But other people, I think, want something more than school.”
Herein lies Columbia’s call. The true power of the University lies not just in serving as a passive vessel for students’ self-guided exploration, but in standing for something, articulating a clear vision for a better world. And so, as we try to articulate our relationship with Chinese international students, we have a great opportunity.
Still, intricate questions remain. For example, how does our focus on China affect (or inhibit) our understanding of other parts of the world? Do conversations about international geopolitics inherently essentialize people? Does the idea of a U.S.-China binary gloss over the identities of people who find themselves caught in between? How does gender play into all of this? Class?
Our real task is to honestly examine how we create meanings of self and civilization from our everyday, messy human experiences, which diverge and converge in increasingly complicated ways. The stakes are too high to globalize thoughtlessly.
*Editor’s Note: Name changed.
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