Nearly 100 years ago, three men from Shanghai were the first Chinese students to graduate from the University of Minnesota.
Today, there are nearly 2,500 University students from greater China on a campus that boasts one of the longest-held U.S. university relationships with China.
University President Eric Kaler, his wife Karen and five others went to Hong Kong on Sunday as part of an 11-day tour of the country. It is Kaler’s first international trip as president.
Jennifer Schulz, communications director for the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, said Kaler visited the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on Tuesday to meet with school officials and strengthen their relationship.
Schulz said the president hosted a reception Tuesday night for 75 University alumni who live in the Hong Kong area.
Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean of international programs at the University, who is joining Kaler on the trip, said he will repeat this process in the other four cities Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Taipei.
The total cost of the trip is $125,000, or $7,450 per person, according to a press release from the GPS Alliance.
Expenses for the Kalers, as well as those of Jay Weiner, the president’s speechwriter, will be covered by private funds from the University of Minnesota Foundation. GPS Alliance and the foundation will pay all other costs together.
A rise in Chinese students
After a rise in the influx of Chinese students began five years ago, McQuaid said, growth has remained steady.
In 2009, the University opened its first international office in Beijing to recruit prospective students and better serve alumni living in China.
It’s not uncommon for U.S. universities to have offices and campuses abroad. Ohio State University, for example, opened a Shanghai office in 2010 to support faculty members, international students, study abroad programs and relationships with universities in China.
The two-person staff at the University of Minnesota’s Beijing office meets with students at some of China’s top institutions that have an international focus and help with pre-departure orientation for students starting at the University.
“It’s difficult for any non-American to figure out how this country runs higher education,” McQuaid said.
Unlike most countries, she said, the U.S. doesn’t have a central ministry of education — instead, higher education is structured on a state-based system.
“If a student said she wanted to study in America, it’s daunting for them to figure out how they organize what’s private versus public, what’s a four-year and what’s a research institution; it’s really dense,” McQuaid said.
Part of the goal of the Beijing office is to make that process easier for students.
An ‘ethical dilemma’
There is a growing debate in higher education on the use of educational agents in the international admissions process, McQuaid said.
Currently, some Chinese students pay agents to help them with the admissions process — everything from filling out applications to booking flights to the U.S.
Lan Jiang, a biomedical engineering sophomore, said she and her parents hired a private agent to help her find prospective schools in the U.S. and plan for her departure.
Jiang said she’s heard rumors that wealthier Chinese families will pay to have essays and transcripts forged. She described the process as an “ethical dilemma.”
McQuaid said the “University specifically does not work through agents, in part because [the University] is well-known.”
Jiang, who hired an agent through Beijing JJL Overseas Education Consulting and Service Co., Ltd., said she didn’t know anything about Minnesota before meeting with her agent.
She declined to say how much her parents paid for the consultation but said “it wasn’t cheap.”
McQuaid said Chinese students often only consider schools in coastal areas, which is part of why the University wants to connect with students directly in China.
When the U.S. and China re-established diplomatic relations in 1979, the University was one of the first Western schools to reconnect and has been intent on bettering the relationship ever since.
But McQuaid said there’s always a risk — for any institution — to place too much reliance on any particular source of students.
Health, political and economic issues can all contribute to a sudden decrease in the number of students, she said, so the University is remaining “cautiously optimistic.”
What’s more, as the University develops its relationship with China, institutions in Asia and Western Europe are also increasing their recruitment efforts, McQuaid said.
“But for now,” she said, “we are still seen as the place to come.”