Waiting For The Great Leap Forward

The state of Chinese-American relations at Miami University.

Eight years ago, in the grip of the Great Recession, Miami University officials projected the university’s budget would plunge into the red by 2016 due to declining in-state enrollment and ever-stingier state support. Despite the dire predictions, Miami now has its healthiest bottom line in a decade, thanks in part to an influx of 2,800 mostly affluent international students, 2,300 of whom come from China.

Illustration by John Holcroft


As successful as the global influx has been for Miami, it has brought with it more changes to the state university that bills itself as America’s “Original Public Ivy” and to the surrounding environs of once-sleepy Oxford, Ohio, than anyone expected—or for that matter planned for. Take a look at the traffic during the evening jam along Oxford’s High Street. Among the more ho-hum BMWs, Audis, Porsches, and Mercedes, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of exotic high-end cars more suited to Rodeo Drive—a Lamborghini, say, or a Maserati or Bentley. Visit Oxford’s Uptown commercial district and you’ll find 10 new Chinese-owned establishments that have opened since 2012, including several restaurants, an Asian food market, a fitness center, and a karaoke bar that cater almost exclusively to Chinese students. Stroll through the university’s vaunted 200-year-old red brick campus and you’ll hear clusters of students conversing in Mandarin while American students pass by seemingly oblivious to their presence. Drop in on an introductory undergraduate course at Miami’s prestigious Farmer School of Business and you’re liable to find half of the class is made up of Chinese students, many of whom are struggling to master English more than the course material itself.

Chinese students walking to a class.

Photographs courtesy Miami University


Finally, climb the curved stairwell in MacMillan Hall to the offices of International Student and Scholar Services, where four advisors struggle to stay on top of the immigration paperwork, academic requirements, driving issues, and unexpected cross-cultural snafus of an international cohort that has grown four-fold since 2009 and now accounts for about 13 percent of Miami’s student body. That translates to one advisor for every 700 international students, a caseload more than double the 300 students recommended by NAFSA: Association of International Educators (the advocacy group formerly known as the National Association of Foreign Student Affairs). The University of Cincinnati has a similar ratio, but just 614 students from China and 1,350 international students in all among its 34,000 undergraduates. Ohio State University, which has almost 6,500 international students among its 66,000 total, weighs in with one advisor for every 586 international students.

“I don’t think we’re any different from other public universities of our size in the Midwest in that we put the cart before the horse,” says Cheryl Young, Miami’s assistant provost of global initiatives, who is responsible for supervising the university’s study abroad program as well as meeting the needs of its international students. “We’re trying to move that around,” she says, but concedes that she knows of no plans to expand the department’s personnel on the university’s main campus.

In the meantime, that cart is getting more crowded.


Miami is one of hundreds of American universities adrift in the vast new global sea. To compensate for declining state funding and domestic enrollment, colleges all over the country have been competing for the lucrative market of Chinese youths wanting to study overseas. Miami has a full-time recruiter in Beijing, and three years ago began sending administrative staff to major cities in China for annual presentations and orientations. This month the university opens a cultural and language outreach program at Sanya University, China’s second largest private college, nestled in a tropical resort area along the coast of the South China Sea.

Does this arrangement help Miami build its brand on an international scale and add to campus diversity? Most certainly. But it does something else that’s even more important: It effectively subsidizes America’s debt-burdened domestic students. At public universities in the United States, where total foreign enrollment is at an all-time high, international students pay higher tuition rates than in-state students, and in some cases, higher rates than out-of-state domestic students. At Miami, out-of-state and international students both pay the same rate—$32,555 per academic year, or more than double the $14,736 charged to in-state students. The state now pays less than 10 percent of student tuition at Miami, hardly what you would expect at a “public” university. (Indeed, Ohio ranks a dismal 45th in the nation in college affordability at a time when economists agree that an educated workforce is the only way to compete in the global marketplace.)

Since the 1970s, state budgets, including Ohio’s, have been increasingly dominated by the mandated costs of prisons, K–12 education, and especially Medicaid. Couple that with Republican legislators’ penchant for rolling back taxes, especially on businesses and the wealthy, and colleges are in a bind. “There’s only so much revenue to go around,” says David Creamer, Miami’s chief financial officer. “One area that has the most discretion [for cuts] is higher education. So when there’s no new revenue, we get pinched.”

In the last decade, universities began in earnest to “globalize” their student bodies. According to NAFSA, more than a million international students studying at U.S. colleges last year contributed $33 billion to the economy and supported more than 400,000 jobs. Ohio’s take in 2016 was $1.1 billion, with Ohio State and Columbus grabbing the top share at $208 million, followed by the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati at $105 million. Small-but-mighty Miami and Oxford placed third, with a $91 million boost from international students, supporting more than 1,300 jobs. Publicly, Miami University officials won’t say the institution is financially dependent on Chinese enrollment, but privately they have told faculty members that raises for teaching staff won’t be forthcoming if there is a drop in international students—a reality that all American universities face in the anti-immigrant climate created by the Trump administration. (Full disclosure: I am a visiting assistant professor in Miami’s journalism program.) One national survey has found that 40 percent of colleges have seen a drop in foreign student applications for the coming academic year.

Keeping Chinese students happy has also become a top priority for Oxford, a town with just 7,000 non-student residents. “The affluent have many choices,” says Glenn Ellerbe, an Oxford City Council member. “I want Miami University and Oxford to be a first choice when they’re looking for an institution of higher education…but we have to put forth some resources to make that happen.” Ellerbe cites the need for the town to invest in an expanded visitors’ bureau as just one example.

Cathy Wagner, an English professor who heads Miami’s advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, lauds the administration’s savvy recruitment strategies for rescuing the university’s finances and for creating “the opportunity for American and Chinese students to learn from each other.” But Wagner, like many faculty members, laments the downside of the sudden influx: increased teaching loads and classroom stresses for faculty and growing resentment among many American students.

An anonymous faculty member’s letter in The Miami Student newspaper rocked the campus two years ago and brought to the surface long-simmering discontent. The writer described Chinese students who lack the English skills to participate in class discussions or understand readings and assignments as “dead weight.”

“Are we accepting them merely to commend ourselves on our diversity or for financial gain?” the writer asked. “Whatever the reason, we are setting these students up to fail.”

The letter spurred scores of angry responses from faculty and students who charged the letter writer, as well as the broader community, with racial prejudice. Quanyu Huang, then-director of the Asian and Asian-American Studies Program, wrote an open letter to then-President David Hodge decrying “the growing anti-Asian sentiment on campus.” When contacted about whether anything has improved in the interim, Huang was reluctant to comment, other than to say “it’s maybe too sensitive to talk about this.”

Ohio State, the 10-ton gorilla of Ohio’s public university system, with 66,000 students and a budget of $6 billion, is the only state university in Ohio to have received the prestigious Senator Paul Simon Award for Comprehensive Internationalization, given out by NAFSA to the top four or five universities in the country for comprehensive service to international students. OSU boasts a global curriculum option for undergraduates in many majors without adding time to graduation and offers annual awards to individuals or groups whose projects reach out to international students. Which is impressive but not a cure-all. According to Karin Fischer, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, no university in the U.S. is taking care of all of the needs of its international students. “I would characterize most [university] initiatives as works in progress rather than as complete successes,” she wrote in an e-mail.


To broaden its international market, Miami, like most American universities, offers conditional admission to foreign students. Applicants who fail to meet the required admission score of 80 out of 120 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) must earn a B-minus in two English language classes and a C or better in a culture course as part of the semester-long American Culture and English program (ACE). With 22 non-tenure track instructors to teach them, half of all international students admitted to Miami pass through ACE, which has a whopping 98 percent graduation rate.

ACE’s effectiveness has gotten mixed reviews from both Miami faculty and Chinese students. In March, chaired economics professor James Brock was unhappy enough with the program to send a scathing, and signed, letter to The Miami Student: “This past fall, half of the grades assigned in 13 ACE classes were A’s…. Judged by the sky-high grades, these students are superbly prepared to succeed in regular Miami courses. But the experience when they enroll in our introductory economics classes strongly suggests otherwise: Many of them lack the rudimentary English fluency to pass the class and drop the course.”

When asked about the problem raised by Brock, Provost Phyllis Callahan noted that from 2011 to 2015—the most recent period for which statistics exist—the program proved its worth with a 95 percent retention rate of ACE students from first to second year (compared to 90 percent for domestic students) and a cumulative GPA nearly as high as domestic undergraduates (3.10 versus 3.13 on a 4.0 scale).

A traditional Chinese dance performance Uptown.

Photographs courtesy Miami University


It’s no secret that Chinese students face cultural as well as language hurdles in American academe. Many want to study in U.S. colleges because of their strong international reputation, the broad array of academic choices, and the potential for career advancement when the students return home. But in China, teaching methods are markedly different: Students are expected to sit silently in their seats, listen to their teachers, and regurgitate what they have learned on the next exam. Questioning instructors can be seen as a sign of disrespect. Classroom discussion, critical thinking, and original research—the methods and activities that American educators value most—are not encouraged.

Miami professors who call on their Chinese students during class say they are often met with bewildered stares. Or if the students are brave enough to answer, “they give answers no one can understand,” one professor said during a recent workshop on “Teaching International Students.” The voluntary workshop is offered twice a year through Miami’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Fifteen of the university’s 979 full-time faculty members attended the most recent 80-minute workshop in March, in which three ACE instructors offered tips on how better to accommodate, and communicate with, international students. “You don’t want to call attention to a student’s language difficulties, but you don’t want to ignore it, either,” Jessica Downey told the small group. One strategy she suggested was to give all students the discussion questions ahead of time and let them write out their answers before sharing with the class.

However, professors also face the dilemma of how much to simplify—or as some might argue, dumb down—their lectures to reach their international students while not boring and losing the attention of their American students. To better accommodate international students, ACE instructor Dale Ehrlich advised the workshop group to slow down their lectures, build in lots of redundancy, eliminate idioms, maxims, and colorful slang, and modulate the pitch and volume of their voices to emphasize key words and concepts. Ehrlich admitted that such strategies are “a trade-off” between reaching American and Chinese students. “But do we really have a choice?” he asked. “We really have to make some concessions to the international student community.”


For Tammy Brown, a professor who teaches introductory classes in Black World Studies, going the extra mile, or two or three, to engage her Chinese students has been “no big deal,” she says. After realizing in the early days of her class that her 25 Chinese students were grasping about half of what she was saying, Brown issued a study guide for the class in Mandarin and encouraged them to turn in early drafts of their papers for review. She added a creative option for students as an alternative to taking the final exam, including submitting journals, poems, short stories, paintings, and even films on themes developed in the class. While her Chinese students all passed the course, she agreed the university needs more support services and higher English standards for foreign students in general. “It’s just not going to be any fun if you’re sitting in a class you don’t understand,” Brown says.

That may be one reason a higher percentage of foreign students have been caught cheating at Miami, accounting for 201 of the 406 students referred to the Office of Academic Integrity during the 2015–2016 academic year. Carol Olausen, head of the ACE program, notes that with Chinese students in particular, much of the problem is caused by confusion over American classroom and assignment rules. But many Chinese students say they are simply being more closely watched by their professors. In an interview in February on Oxford Weekly, a newscast on Miami’s student-run TV station, Brenda Quaye, coordinator of the Office of Academic Integrity, concurred. “I don’t believe there is more dishonesty happening in that community,” she said. “I think it’s because they are being caught at a higher rate.” But first-year calculus instructor Brittany Burns wonders if her Chinese students “know what cheating is. They’re using cell phones to assist them during quizzes and exams. And they discuss things among themselves during a test, a kind of whispering back and forth. I tell them they can’t do that, over and over, but I don’t think it’s as big a deal [in China] as it is here.”

Even the best-prepared Chinese students sometimes struggle. Penghui Xue, a senior at Miami majoring in finance and accounting, spent two years in China in an intensive English-based college before coming to Miami, and went on to pass Miami’s TOEFL requirement. Nevertheless, he says his first semester on campus was a challenge: “I didn’t understand a word my anthropology professor said.” By seeking help from the professor during office hours and finding a tutor at Miami’s Howe Writing Center, Xue passed the class with an A-minus. Soon after, Xue adopted what he calls America’s “active learning” style—pushing himself to improve his English by engaging and speaking with students whenever he could. Over the 2015–2016 winter break, he was the only Chinese student to join a study abroad program to learn about the financial markets in Asia. By doing so, he says, he was able to make friends with American students, something he hadn’t been able to do in four years in Oxford.

Xue doesn’t place all the blame on domestic students for being remote and indifferent to other cultures, as many Chinese students I spoke with did. He points out that Chinese students have created what he calls “a Chinatown of a sort” by socializing only among themselves and by patronizing local Chinese businesses. “Chinese students prefer to stay in their comfort zone,” he says.

The “Chinatown” syndrome tends to annoy domestic students. Some say they feel unwelcome in businesses with storefront displays and menus in Chinese only. Samantha Goheen told Oxford Weekly in March that when she asks for the menu to be translated in some restaurants, “they kind of just stare at me and speak in Chinese, which I don’t understand. So I end up just having to leave.”


When it comes to cultural isolation, the finger-pointing goes both ways. Munira Muhtar, a junior pursuing a degree in international studies, is from a remote part of western China where Mandarin is considered a secondary language. When Muhtar arrived at Miami, she had already spent two years in private high schools in the United States and was eager to make American friends in college. Although she speaks almost flawless idiomatic English, she says the Chinese students at Miami have adopted her as one of their own while the friendships she has sought with domestic students have not taken root.

“I’m not really hanging out with them—you know, sharing secrets and doing girl stuff together. It’s like ‘Hi, hello, how are you?’ and it just ends there,” she says. “Chinese students didn’t even recognize me at first as Chinese. But when they heard me speak Mandarin, they reached out to me and I’ve become close to them.”

Miami’s office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) and the Confucius Institute—the on-campus office of the Chinese ministry that promotes the understanding of Chinese language and culture—offer a variety of opportunities for Chinese and American students to mingle and get to know each other’s cultures. But as anyone familiar with college students on either continent knows, getting them to show up is sometimes more than half the battle. ISSS “offers a lot of support for international students, but you have to take the support,” says Shisheng Tio Liang, a senior majoring in marketing and business analytics and the student leader of Miami’s Global Buddies program, which pairs international and American students for weekly outings to promote cultural exchange and help them practice their English. This year 50 American students have volunteered to be Global Buddies, down from 150 in years past, but Liang says that’s because other university departments have started similar programs. Even so, he has observed that foreign students tend to be more enthusiastic about getting together.

Inside the ISSS office.

Photographs courtesy Miami University


The challenges for Chinese students do not end at the campus property line. Of the 228 traffic citations issued by Oxford police during a six-week period this winter, Chinese students received 52 of them, or about 23 percent—well out of proportion considering they make up only five percent of the city’s population. Chinese students say Oxford police target them because of their cars. Penghui Xue, who says he “doesn’t believe in speeding,” has gotten three speeding tickets in the last four years while driving his Porsche Cayenne about town. “With American students, first time they get a warning,” he says. “But not Chinese students—maybe because they think you can afford the ticket.”

Oxford city councilman Glenn Ellerbe agrees, but he also believes that Chinese students, most of whom are first-time drivers and sometimes handling over-powered sports cars, have difficulty adjusting to U.S. traffic regulations. As an advisor to international students in the Miami Sports Car Club, he warns them to “be aware that, no matter what you do, you’re going to get extra attention for driving a flashy car.” Despite a university seminar for foreign students on driving, Chinese students are often cited for failure to have a valid driver’s license, required insurance coverage, or up-to-date registration and tags—common paperwork hassles that Ellerbe has helped many of them navigate. He points out that Chinese students also face resentment from less privileged locals, who have been known to key the custom paint jobs on exotic sports cars, including one valued at $400,000. Ellerbe says he can appreciate why affluent Chinese students would buy such cars: With taxes and tariffs, they would pay two to three times as much back home—enough to make even a $200,000 automobile seem like a bargain. Their college years in America may be their one chance to drive a Maserati Gran Turismo, or an Aston Martin Vantage. And expensive sports cars preserve much of their resale value when it’s time to return to China.

Language and cultural barriers can also heighten the tension of living together in close dormitory quarters. Molly Heidemann, who heads ISSS, says domestic students will sometimes complain to Chinese students about the smell of their food. Unlike domestic students, who often have the chance to meet and choose roommates prior to admission, most foreign students take their chances with the university’s random pairings. On occasion, a domestic student—or more typically, their helicopter parent—will complain about the match-up, says Brian Woodruff of Miami’s housing office. “It always starts out, ‘I’m very open-minded but…you’re starting out my student for failure because they won’t be able to communicate.’”


It is clear that bridging the cultural gap between Chinese and American youth is a worthy goal toward world peace and understanding. But there are selfish reasons that most Americans can relate to as well. Domestic students exposed to other cultures “will make smarter decisions about political and social issues in the future,” says Carol Olausen, the ACE director. “And when there are 300,000 Chinese students going home each year from America, trained in our language and culture, think of how that will affect the way they do business with Americans and we do business with them.”

The question is whether students on both sides of the cultural divide will make that leap and whether American universities, including Miami, will devote the resources to help make it happen. Glenn Ellerbe thinks that currently such programs “are very underfunded. But that’s not going to change until we have an unfortunate occurrence [involving a Chinese student] and then a reaction to that, or we get some grass root movement going, or some benefactor steps up with a significant donation. It would be super nice if [the donation] would happen, but we can’t really operate that way.”

Few people at Miami have worked harder to forge a bond between Chinese and American students than Chen Zhao, director of the Confucius Institute. And though there may be a ways to go, she sees a path. “For me, understanding has to come from both sides,” Zhao says. “On the Chinese student side, we are asking them to be more aware of the norms here, especially in the classroom. For faculty and [domestic] students, the thing is for you to be more patient and sympathetic with Chinese students. That’s really all they want.”

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