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A Land of Contrasts - College Admissions in China

August 12, 2013

Please enjoy this photo I captured in Changsha. Chairman Mao likely never predicted that this scene would unfold in front of his watchful gaze. Another bend in the maze.

More than 74,000 Chinese students enrolled as undergraduates at American colleges and universities last year, easily making China the single largest exporter of students to our shores.  I just returned from a recruitment trip in China during which I met many students, teachers and counselors.  Chinese students comprise about one third of the international students at Pomona College.  While the raw numbers are small (approximately 13 – 14 Chinese students enroll in each new class) the impact that these students will have on Pomona and, thereafter, the world is quite significant.

China is a maze of dichotomies and contradictions.  This is an ancient culture and civilization dating back 5,000 years.  It would not be possible, as it is in the United States, to study their entire history in a single year of high school.  Yet the People’s Republic of China dates only to 1949, making the government one of the newer in the world.  It is a nation of explosive growth and modernization on a scale perhaps never seen before.  Yet it grows unevenly, with cities sporting infrastructure more modern than anything in the United States surrounded by areas seemingly bypassed by the march of time.  There is a grace and charm in their traditions as displayed in Chinese calligraphy or the dulcet tones of the guzheng.  Yet the omnipresent cranes, the crush of the subways and even the “spirited” conventions of automobile operation evince an unbridled energy and drive.  The state is governed by the Communist Party yet signs of capitalism abound.  The ubiquitous KFC’s and Pizza Hut’s lead me to believe that Chinese students will be quite comfortable in America.  “Look,” they will whisper excitedly to each other, pointing to those same restaurants in Los Angeles or New York.  “Look, they have Chinese food here, too.”

More than anything else, though, I was struck by the unabashed hunger for education I witnessed in China.  The Chinese education system is as rigorous as it is rigid.  It is based on acquiring vast amounts of information, on honoring the expertise of their teachers and the accumulated wisdom of their ancestors.  It is a system that rewards a reverence for knowledge rather than the inclination to challenge, manipulate and create such knowledge.  American education, although rooted in what we call the “classics”, is delivered in a context that recognizes the spirit of exploration upon which this nation was founded.  Going abroad for college allows students to marry the best of these two great traditions.  In China, high school is considered to be very difficult and university to be comparatively easy.  I daresay the opposite is largely the case in America.  Chinese students going to college in America, therefore, pair their demanding high school experience with our challenging college education.

Many of the students I met have planned to study in the west for years and have supplemented their Chinese curriculum with additional English language opportunities and intensive test preparation.  This is not a decision to be taken lightly because students cannot simultaneously prepare for both American college admissions and the Chinese university entrance exam.  These students must fully commit themselves to a very demanding and competitive regimen with no guaranteed pay off awaiting them on the far side of the SAT or the TOEFL.  I heard a common theme that connected the nine cities I visited.  Students want exposure to the hallmarks of an American education: critical thought, problem solving (and identification), rigorous inquiry and persuasive communication.  In a nation to which the very concept of “liberal arts” is entirely foreign, I met students who truly crave this kind of education even if they could not fully define it.  In an age when education, even higher education, is taken for granted by too many I was inspired and heartened by the passion I saw in so many Chinese students. 

A student in Beijing remarked that “there are countless ways to succeed in America and I am determined to find the right path for me.”  The hope and optimism in his voice bolstered my belief in his underlying premise.  From Wuhan to Guangzhou, Chengdu to Ningbo, Shenzhen to Chongqing and Shanghai to Changsha, I met a generation of promising scholars who will bring with them to America the aspirations of a newly (re)emerging and ascendant nation.  Their education here will help fuel the continued transformation of China but they also have much to share about their own culture and experiences.  Their perspective will inform debate in our classrooms and their world view will challenge a western-centric academic and historical paradigm.  Just as setting foot beyond their borders may teach them what it means to be Chinese, their presence on our campus will help our American students contemplate what it means to be American.  Approximately thirteen of these students will continue their academic journey at Pomona College and for that we shall both be enriched.

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