Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Engineering Dreams: U.S. Chinese Student Population Growth in Historical Disciplinary Context

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Engineering Dreams: U.S. Chinese Student Population Growth in Historical Disciplinary Context

Article excerpt

Universities in the United States have experienced remarkable growth in the number of international students in recent years, and of Chinese students in particular. A significant portion of those students choose to major in engineering, but this is not simply a contemporary trend. In many ways, internationalization of U.S. student bodies seems to be a recent phenomenon, as universities actively seek to globalize their perspectives and engagement. From an academic perspective, programs have embraced international outlooks in ways that reach far beyond the conventions of world history and literature. Communication and nursing programs, for example, now include global components. Changes seem even more fundamental at institutional levels as top-ranking administrators market their institutions to key constituents and work to balance budgets through grants and enrollment increases. Private institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago have long attracted students from around the world and prepared them as international leaders in politics and business; however, state schools once largely reliant on tax revenues, and dedicated to serving local students through quality education and affordable tuition, have turned to out-of-state and international students who pay higher rates. Tier-one schools compete for grant money designated for research involving international faculty with global applications. In addition, they and smaller schools compete for international students. As Chinese students comprise the majority, there has been growing concern that they may be targeted too aggressively in recruitment endeavors, and that university personnel are viewing this group of prospective enrollees with simply short-term vision.

However, the presence of Chinese students in the United States is not a recent story; rather, its history extends more than one hundred years. It is a contributing factor in migration history, for even when a majority of students ultimately return to their home countries, they influence changes in culture and policy in the United States. It is also representative of broader international dynamics, as Chinese student enrollment patterns in the United States reflect shifts in diplomatic relations between the two nations. The fact that significant percentages of students have chosen engineering as their field of study is also worth examining, as this was not simply a coincidence. Chinese leaders sought engineering expertise in their efforts to modernize their nation, and Chinese students who dreamed of studying abroad understood that engineering degrees would earn them respect. In studying population history, it is essential to consider specific episodes that complement the larger story. To that end, this paper provides a framework for looking at Chinese engineering students as a feature of U.S.-China history.

The story of Chinese studying abroad in the United States begins in the nineteenth century. The "Self-Strengthening Movement" of the Qing government sponsored education abroad in the 1870s and 1880s, which included "China's first hundred" students in the United States (1872-1881). (1) The government's intention during that period was to acquire new knowledge, improve the character of the students, and ultimately expand the capacity of China. Observers feared the students were quickly adopting American lifestyles, so the program was short-lived. In addition, anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States created a hostile environment for the general Chinese population and therefore Chinese students. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that ended immigration allowed for continued entrance of students, but a relational shift was underway. Until this time, there had been in place an agreement that Chinese students could enroll in U.S. military academies, but that, too, would come to an end. (2)

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 prompted the Qing government to initiate social and political reforms for the sake of self-preservation, including a new emphasis on education. …

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