From China to America. Then what?

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Author: Karin Fischer
Date: Feb. 3, 2017
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 63, Issue 22)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,954 words
Lexile Measure: 1170L

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Chinese students leave U.S. colleges armed with degrees and full of hope. Until reality sets in.


By the time she got the official news, Wendy Wu already knew.

The lottery had happened weeks earlier, the annual drawing held by the U.S. government to award Hl-B visas, the work permits for highly skilled foreigners. The tech company that had hired Wendy as a software designer after she graduated from Michigan State University had agreed to sponsor her, and although there were two applicants for every visa, she was optimistic about her odds. "I'm a happy person," she says. "I think the best version of the future."

But as the weeks ticked by, her confidence faltered. The phone call, when it finally came, was a formality.

When she had arrived five years earlier from Guangzhou, China, she had crammed everything she needed in just two suitcases. Now the life she had built in America was a lot harder to pack up. "I couldn't leave," she says, "with two suitcases."

Over the past decade, an unprecedented number of young Chinese students --nearly 330,000 in the past academic year alone, the largest influx from a single country ever--have come to study on American campuses. For these students, and for the families who invest, sometimes everything, in their education, an American degree has been seen as a golden ticket. A ticket, they hope, to help them stand out in the hypercompetitive and overheated Chinese job market. Or a ticket out of a country where both the political future and the air are often opaque.

As more and more Chinese students have begun to collect diplomas from American colleges, however, these expectations have met a sometimes less than rosy reality. As Wendy discovered, staying on in the United States can be tough, even for talented graduates in sought-after fields--and the recent election results don't seem to offer much promise for the easing of immigration restrictions.

What's more, here in China, a foreign degree hasn't always conveyed the hoped-for advantage. For all the Western-educated entrepreneurs and bilingual businessmen in Shanghai and Shenzhen, there are those who have returned from abroad to under- or unemployment. One of the biggest challenges? The sheer number of returnees, some 400,000 last year, and growing. The surge, one of China's leading think tanks recently concluded, has meant fierce competition for the still relatively small pool of internationally focused jobs.

While the flood of Chinese students to American colleges isn't likely to dry up anytime soon, recruitment could be affected if graduates return home with less than they bargained for. Much of the conversation in the United States is about outcomes and the value of college, after all--why should Chinese students and families be immune to such concerns?

All those golden tickets American colleges have been printing may be showing a little tarnish.

Wendy had two weeks to figure out her future.

All international students are allowed to work in the United States for at least one year after graduation, through a...

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