Yuan Wan is the son of Chinese government officials who grew up in the difficult years of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. Neither of his parents had a good high school education, nor did they attend college, although both acquired degrees later in life.
His parents wanted his own schooling to be better, Wan said. So they bought children’s books for him, subscribed to every magazine imaginable, supported him in his studies, and talked to his teachers.
When Wan developed a love of math in high school, his father wanted him to pursue something practical such as engineering, but his mother persuaded him to allow Wan to go for what he describes as his “passion”: physics.
Wan now has two physics degrees from Nanjing University and is working toward his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., in the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
As an international student, Wan has plenty of company. The Washington metropolitan area attracts students from other countries by the tens of thousands. Its universities drew nearly 36,500 foreign students in 2011, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Virginia leads the region, with 15,056 foreign students in the state, followed closely by Maryland and then the District.
And as an international student from China, Wan also has plenty of company. China, in fact, sends the largest numbers here — a pattern that extends not only across the United States, but worldwide as well. The People’s Republic had a total of 157,558 students traveling to the United States in 2011, according to IIE.
Business and management, along with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM studies), are the most popular subjects, with 60 percent of international students worldwide getting degrees in these fields.
In university physics programs in the United States, a striking 44 percent of first-year Ph.D. students in 2009 were from another country, according to the American Institute of Physics.
In some schools and departments, students from China have a commanding presence. Daniel Reich, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy, said his department currently has 118 graduate students enrolled (all of them working on Ph.D.s); 47 are citizens of other countries, with 32 of them coming from China.
If you look beyond the astounding numbers, it’s clear that both competition and collaboration mark the relationship between China and the United States at all academic levels, a yin and yang of tight ties and competing forces whereby many people in both countries view education as the driving force behind national prosperity and power.
On the U.S. side, many Americans view the Chinese relationship through the prism of competition — perhaps a natural consequence of an established power being leery of an emerging one.
While overall, U.S. universities remain the envy of the world, America’s education system is riddled with problems, from high school dropouts to test scores that continually slip behind nations such as Singapore and Finland. Not a day goes by without warnings that the United States isn’t investing enough in education to compete in a globalized world.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it in a recent column: “Average is over.”
“There is no good job today that does not require more and better education to get it, hold it or advance in it,” he wrote. “Which is why it is disturbing when more studies show that American K-12 schools continue to lag behind other major industrialized countries on the international education tests.”
Likewise, Charles O. Holliday, former head of DuPont, the place where a Harvard University invention called nylon was first churned out, sounded the alarm about the state of America’s education system in a recent editorial in Science magazine.
“U.S. universities have been the incubators of the nation’s prosperity,” he wrote. “The talent and knowledge produced by research universities underpin many of the finest U.S. achievements, from seeding the modern agricultural system to enabling the World Wide Web. But new challenges are putting these important national assets in danger.”
Holliday cited the destructiveness of education funding cuts by states and the federal government — as well as business supporters and nonprofits alike — along with bureaucratic inefficiencies, overregulation and sclerotic infrastructure. Universities are “critical to [U.S.] competitiveness in an innovation-based economy,” he warned.
Competitive anxieties exist on both sides of the Pacific, however. “Reforming Chinese Education: What China Is Trying to Learn from America” is the title of an April 2012 article published in the Solutions Journal by Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon.
He writes that China, which has all but eliminated illiteracy, is concerned about its relatively small number of inventions, its lack of patents, and the thin number of Chinese scholars who are intellectual superstars. He says the country needs to improve its education system to transform its economy from one based on low-skilled, cheap labor to one based on knowledge and high-value innovation.
To change that, Zhao writes that the Chinese government wants to loosen a rote, test-oriented education system that “goes back over a thousand years,” to promote American-style creativity and independent thinking. Meanwhile, the Americans, admiring the discipline and rigor of Asian schooling, have been moving toward a test-based system in their public schools.
Science itself is a competitive field, regardless of nationality, said Danru Qu, one of Yuan Wan’s fellow Ph.D. students at Johns Hopkins. That’s because “you know there are other groups in the world who share the same interests,” she said. “It is especially intensive if several groups are working on the same subject.”
Wan said he believes that while Chinese scientists maintain high international standards in research, “China is still far behind in science. The flow of knowledge has been largely one way [into China] in the past,” with Chinese students going to the United States and other developed countries to “vacuum up” knowledge and expertise.
Reich observed that the newer generation of students is taking that knowledge and expertise back home. “Students started coming from China in large numbers from the 1980s and a great many were staying and making their careers here. That’s changing. China is making great investments in its research, and the quality of research at Chinese universities is increasing very fast. Students are increasingly getting training and going back to China.”
Wan is one of those students. “My future lies in China,” he said. “The first decade of the 21st century witnessed the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Now the Chinese government is investing massively in fundamental research and science infrastructure. For instance, Chinese scientists are building the largest radio telescope in the world, a project fully endorsed by the central government. I believe that there will be significant demand for physicists in the foreseeable future.”
Nevertheless, he glorifies the U.S. system: Wan chose Johns Hopkins for its expertise in his area of specialized physics research and because “the Institute for Quantum Matter at Johns Hopkins is a place where you can find close collaboration among chemists, experimental physicists, and theorists,” he said. “This is precisely how condensed matter physics research is supposed to be done. As a theorist, I deeply appreciate the chance to collaborate with experimentalists. Their data are the source of my inspiration.”
In physics, he added, “The United States is second to none. I came to the U.S. for its exciting intellectual environment and its working culture” that promotes the free exchange of ideas and collaboration.
“Seminars are held on a regular basis, and visitors come from all over the world to present their research,” Wan said of the U.S. university system. “The chances of meeting and learning from leading scientists are abundant. People from different groups are willing to discuss their research and exchange insights.”
Physics graduate student Qu agrees. The daughter of a mathematics professor and an engineer, she too spoke about the openness of the science subculture in the United States and its collegiality. “If I have a sample, and I tested it, but I cannot understand the data generated, I can ask a theorist’s help to build a model,” she said. “We learn from each other in order to contribute to our field.”
She said she turned to physics to discover the deeper truths beneath natural phenomena and chose Johns Hopkins because the physics department is working at the “frontiers” of discovery.
The surge in U.S.-China educational exchanges is a tricky new “frontier” for both sides as well, carrying promise and pitfalls, as illustrated in the article “The China Conundrum” published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Colleges, eager to bolster their diversity and expand their international appeal, have rushed to recruit in China, where fierce competition for seats at Chinese universities and an aggressive admissions-agent industry feed a frenzy to land spots on American campuses,” wrote Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer. “College officials and consultants say they are seeing widespread fabrication on applications, whether that means a personal essay written by an agent or an English-proficiency score that doesn’t jibe with a student’s speaking ability. American colleges, new to the Chinese market, struggle to distinguish between good applicants and those who are too good to be true.”
On the flip side, they write, “Once in the classroom, students with limited English labor to keep up with discussions. And though those students are excelling, struggling, and failing at the same rate as their American counterparts, some professors say they have had to alter how they teach. Colleges have been slow to adjust to the challenges they’ve encountered but are trying new strategies, both to better acclimate students and to deal with the application problems.”
Indeed, schools and institutions across the Washington area are working to find common ground amid the competition. For instance, English Now!, a popular English language school in Bethesda, Md., hosted a discussion this spring on trends in U.S.-China educational exchange and best practices in serving Chinese students in the States, including progress under the Obama administration’s 100,000 Strong Initiative, which promotes U.S. study abroad in China (also see “Bridging Great Wall: U.S.-China Educational Exchanges Breaking Down Misconceptions” in the September 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Doug Guthrie, dean of the George Washington University School of Business, is also working to capitalize on this cross-border exchange to usher in a new business paradigm for the 21st century. He isn’t surprised that students such as Qu and Wan are attracted to U.S. universities, which he said “are still the best in the world” — not just in science but overall.
But he warned they won’t maintain that stature if Americans continue to undermine them by under-investing in education and by pushing visa requirements that discourage international professionals from coming here to work and “make it impossible” for top foreign students to stay, he told The Washington Diplomat. (Incidentally, legislation was just recently introduced in the House to change that and make it easier for foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math to remain in the United States.)
To keep GWU on top of its game, Guthrie has launched an education model that combines collaboration and competition into one promising enterprise. He wants to “create a forum for business education unlike any other” and instill a deeper sense of ethical responsibility and understanding of global issues into tomorrow’s business leaders.
“The current discussion of financial reform, which reverberates from Shanghai to Berlin, will be echoed in our classrooms, posted on our faculty blogs and examined in our media interviews as we engage the community beyond our campus,” he declares on his bio page. “We will look at the politics of U.S.-China relations, and other geopolitical issues that challenge international businesses.”
While he’s only been at GWU for three years, his impact is already being felt on campus. For instance, students created the GWU Business Gives Back group that supports responsible business practices and raises money for charities. At a recent Business Gives Back celebration, Guthrie joined a student band on guitar in a rocking rendition of “Proud Mary,” the 1968 hit by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Guthrie can think outside the box because he’s never lived inside one. He holds a degree in East Asian languages and civilizations with a concentration in Chinese literature from the University of Chicago. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he also studied in Taiwan during his undergraduate years and conducted his doctoral research in Shanghai, China.
So it’s little surprise that China is a key part of Guthrie’s strategy. To that end, in March the School of Business launched a cooperative agreement with Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) in Jiangsu, China, whereby GWU will work with China’s Ministry of Education and Renmin University to develop advanced degrees in finance and accounting for Chinese students.
“The George Washington University School of Business is interested in developing a deep relationship with the Chinese government and Ministry of Education on multiple levels,” said Guthrie. “This new partnership will increase the university’s growing educational presence in China and will significantly expand educational opportunities for Chinese students.”
The industrial park is one of China’s major development zones. “Twenty years ago it was rice paddies. Now it’s the country’s number-one investment destination, a small city of 700,000 people,” Guthrie said.
The next step, he told us, will be to launch a global certificate program for Chinese executives. It will take them to a series of cities, including Shanghai, Washington, D.C., Berlin and London. “I’m interested in a collaborative academic framework that focuses on the global economy.”
Institute of International Education: www.iie.org
Johns Hopkins University: http://www.jhu.edu
The George Washington University School of Business: http://business.gwu.edu
Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP): http://www.sipac.gov.cn/english/
English Now!: www.english-now.com
About the Author
Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.