Prevention and Treatment: Learning from 8,000 Expelled Chinese Students

Daniel Su serves as the Vice President for China Outreach Ministries. He grew up and attended college in China before coming to America in 1986. Before serving with COM, Daniel pastored a Chinese congregation in Texas.

Last May, The Wall Street Journal carried an article entitled “U.S. Schools Expelled 8,000 Chinese Students.” To many people that came as a surprise because most people associate Chinese students with academic success. However, as China changes as a nation, so do its students studying here on this side of the Pacific. What did the WSJ article show us about China and how it is changing? We’re all children of our time and culture, and so are the Chinese students. What is happening to Chinese students in America says a lot about China itself. There seems to be a cause and effect.

First, as China grows economically Chinese people now have a lot more personal and financial freedom. More and more Chinese families can afford sending their children to study in America and elsewhere. Aside from students using their private funding sources for their American education, China is also officially sponsoring more and more people to study or do research in the US. The net effect is a significant surge of Chinese students and visiting scholars in the US. China now ranks number one among international students in the US. According to Open Door, the number of Chinese students reached a record 304,040 for the 2014-2015 school year, which means one in every three international students is from China.

Second, with the surge in numbers the current group of Chinese students no longer represents the cream of the crop like their predecessors did, though many of them are still among the best students from China. Chinese students are coming to community colleges and average colleges, as well as Ivy League universities. Many Chinese parents may be financially strong enough to pay for their children’s education in the US, but their children may not be academically strong enough for their enrollment in a reputable college.

Moreover, Chinese students may not demonstrate the same level of academic caliber as their American classmates on the same campuses. The reason may be that Chinese students tend to excel in taking tests due to their hard work preparing for the SAT, ACT or GRE. Many of them took private prep classes in China prior to taking tests for coming to America. As a result, their real academic competency may not necessarily match the high test scores that got them enrolled. On top of that, having to compete in a different culture and language certainly has contributed to the challenges facing the Chinese students.

Those Chinese students who were expelled from school due to academic dishonesty reflect a lack of respect for laws and rules on the part of many Chines students. Though China as a country has made progress in the rule of law and respect for the law, comparatively speaking, Chinese students in general do not seem to take laws and rules as seriously as American students.

The church, Chinese or American, needs to consider how to understand the problem of Chinese students being expelled and how to respond. As the Christian community, we should open our hearts, our homes, and our churches to welcome these students and help them adjust to living and studying in America. It is an opportunity for Christians to extend our hospitality and to show unconditional, genuine, Christian love and care. What Chinese students experience here in America may have a significant impact on China’s future when they return and assume various levels of leadership in Chinese society.

For American academic institutions, they should provide adequate services to educate and help Chinese and other international students to become aware of and overcome the cultural and linguistic differences in order to help them thrive in their new environments. They should not assume international students will have the same understanding or awareness as American students regarding American academic culture and the way of doing things.

I think the key to ministering to students at risk of expulsion whether we are pastors, lay people, or Christian workers is getting to know them and building personal relationships of trust. Once the relationship is there, the student will be free to share his or her struggles and challenges. Chinese students tend to be reserved and do not feel comfortable sharing their feelings with people they do not know well; they tend to see themselves as guests in our country. As hosts, we need to take the initiative to open our homes and our church doors to the students, inviting them to appropriate activities, programs, and seminars where they can meet Americans in person and get to know each other. Like all people, Chinese students can fall into depression and other emotional problems when living in isolation, dealing with academic pressure, and having issues with relationships. They need counseling and listening ears. In this area, prevention is always a more effective way than treatment.

As internationals studying in America, Chinese students have needs for friendship, for understanding different cultural norms, for improving their English, and for advice in special situations. Their needs become opportunities for us to be friends with them and walk along side them. Most of them come from an atheistic background. As a result, they are spiritually open and searching; they are also curious to know what the Christian faith has to say about the meaning and purpose of life. These are all opportunities for us to dialogue with them and engage them in life’s journey. And they are grateful when we are willing to do that. In my ministry to Chinese students, I find that they are more likely to grasp the meaning of Christian faith in the context of a caring Christian community.  

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