Yingyi Ma on Chinese International Students

Yingyi Ma is an Associate Professor of Sociology and a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Policy Research. Professor Ma is also the Director of Asian/Asian American Studies, She is a sociologist of education and migration. She is currently a Public Intellectual Fellow at the National Committee on US-China Relations Her new book, Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese Undergraduates Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, is forthcoming by Columbia University Press in Dec 2019. She is the coeditor of Understanding International Students from Asia in American Universities: Learning and Living Globalization (2017), which has won the Honorable mention of the Best Book Award from the Study Abroad and International Students Section, Comparative and International Education Association. She has received grants from National Science Foundation, Alfred Sloan Foundation, and Association of Institutional Research. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Johns Hopkins University in 2007.


Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are now enrolled in American universities and colleges. What are the main reasons for them to come here and pay for expensive higher education? 

We can understand this from two angles. The first angle is why they want to come here. The second angle is how they can come here. So, the first is about their motivation; the second is about their capacity. They are largely driven by the higher quality of higher education: more opportunities here, larger number of higher-ranking, higher-quality, world-class colleges in the United States than in China.

The capacity for them to come here is largely due to the rising middle-class population in China that makes them able to afford the very expensive higher education here in the United States.

What are the main struggles that Chinese international students face in the United States?

There are two main aspects. The first aspect pertains to academic areas and academic struggles they experience within classrooms, in terms of classroom participation, teamwork, classroom discussion and things like that. They also have their dilemmas in their college major choices. They are often caught in different value systems in the United States that emphasize individual choice and passion, as compared with the influence from their parents in terms of being very practical and linking their college major choices with their future jobs.

And in terms of social struggles, that is about their friendship formation and social network. A lot of people, for example, are trying to diversify their networks, but they are somehow stuck in a co-national Chinese friendship network. Some can make friends with other international students from different countries, but for a lot of students, they want to have a more enriching kind of social experience. Somehow, that is hard to come by. 

How have the rising tensions between China and the United States affected Chinese students studying in the United States? 

That’s a pretty tricky question, and here’s a disclaimer because the research that I’ve conducted is largely before these rising tensions became a reality. But, I do cover the Trump election and that posed some of the challenges for all international students, not just Chinese students. 

The trade war and the other accusations and political scrutiny by the FBI and other federal agencies on Chinese students and scholars have made the Chinese student and scholar communities pretty anxious. So, the perceptions of the United States being initially very friendly, very open, and very welcoming environment have changed into possibly hostile, deviating from the original expectations they’ve had about the United States.

How should Chinese students deal with this difficult environment?  

They should try to be open-minded and understand that, just as the government is different from society, we should always be giving the benefit of the doubt to our colleagues, friends, and classmates in our lives and try not to link their positions or their perspectives with the political rhetoric or media narrative about them. So, I think that being open-minded is very important, so is trying to make diverse sets of friends. Firsthand interactions and experiences with Americans can be very helpful in terms of going beyond the sometimes biased and uni-dimensional coverage in the media. 

How legitimate are the current administrations’ concerns about the loss of intellectual property and national security risk due to educational exchanges particularly with China? 

I think they should treat this on a case-by-case basis, and they should make every effort to avoid any kind of profiling. I would very much warn against the FBI director’s “whole society” approach which could risk treating innocent people as national security risks.

How has the presence of more than 300,000 Chinese students benefited American higher education institutions, and what is the impact for those universities if Chinese students find it more difficult or less attractive to study in the United States?

The benefit for American higher education is self-evident in financial terms. Many American universities and colleges, especially state universities, are  cash-strapped. States have experienced loss of revenues, and a lot of universities depend on tuitions paid by international students to make up for the cuts. But, financial issues aside, there are a lot of cultural and social benefits from the presence of international students, and China provides the largest supply of them.

If Chinese students find it more difficult or less attractive to study here, they are going to go elsewhere, This is going to be a pretty big blow to American universities as we can see in several universities already, starting from the University of Illinois which has bought large sums of insurance against the potential decline of Chinese international students enrollment. I think that the financial impact is huge, but I would emphasize the social and cultural impact as well.

Just a quick question on the University of Illinois taking out a three-year insurance policy to protect itself in the case of a significant drop in revenue, do you see this as a potential trend for universities if the trade war or rising tensions continue or do you think this is a one-off case?

I don’t think this is a one-off case, but I am not so sure if there is a large number of universities following the suit. Recently, there are a couple of universities who have joined this league, so the University of Illinois is not the only university doing that. But buying insurance is one strategy to protect themselves against the declining enrollment, and I think that other universities will probably adopt other strategies to protect themselves against it.

Which countries are most likely to benefit if rising US-China tensions reduce the number of Chinese students coming to the U.S. given the social and economic benefit that comes with them?

Other major destinations of Chinese international students are going to benefit from this outflow from the United States, in particular the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The statistics already show that the UK has benefited quite a bit. They had a big uptick of Chinese international students over the past year. Right now, the United States still stands as the dominant market for Chinese international students.

How is the Chinese government responding to the United States’ increased restriction on visas and political atmosphere?

Chinese government could prepare some tit-for-tat policies, for example, to restrict on visas for Americans to enter China. This June, the Foreign Ministry sent out a warning, and that warning was potentially about safety. I think that safety is not just in the government warning but on the minds of Chinese parents. A lot of Chinese parents are concerned about the crime, the prevalence of guns in American society. From the government perspective, I do not see them taking any specific actions yet to discourage Chinese students from coming here. If anything, I think they are encouraging some kinds of international education exchange. Because, they are trying to send their own students abroad on a short-term basis as part of their internationalization efforts.

Could you elaborate on the main take-aways of your upcoming book, Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese Undergraduates Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education?

The main takeaways are to look at this new wave of Chinese undergraduate student population from the transformative social changes happening in China. My main argument is that their experiences in the United States, including their preparation, their pathways to coming here, their academic and social experiences on American campuses and their future planning upon the completion of their studies are fraught with ambition and anxiety. That is why the book is titled “Ambitious and Anxious.” I further argue that this duality of ambition and anxiety defining their experiences in the United States are symptomatic of the rise of China: the whole society is full of ambition and anxiety. Chinese students embody these kinds of social changes happening in China. So, I encourage American college students, professors, administrators to look at the population from this perspective. The traditional angle of looking at international students focuses on their adjustment, their adaptation to American society, but it neglects the home country context. So, in this book, I try to connect the home country, in this case, China and the host country the United States, as a growing number of Chinese students are spending their formative years in these two societies. The connection between the two is vital in sustaining their experiences here. 




Sarah Chen CMC'22Student Journalist

Colgate University – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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