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“To Learn is to Know One’s Ignorance”: Sino-U.S. Relations and Millennials Studying Abroad

Studying abroad can be an incredible and rewarding way to complete one’s education, and can help students succeed in the long run. In both the U.S. and China many programs exist whose sole purpose is to send students to study in another country. These programs laud the innumerable benefits of foreign language and culture exposure, and the potential job opportunities gained from marketing an experience abroad. These benefits also extend past the purely personal gains– studying in another country can have international influence as well. When students go abroad, particularly to pursue education, they are seen as ambassadors of their nation. What students say and do abroad can reflect and shape others’ attitudes about the student’s home country. Therefore, both Chinese and American students studying abroad as future leaders and influencers have the ability to shape Sino-U.S. relations through an international education. Both the United States and Chinese governments have recognized this, and co-launched the 100,000 Strong Initiative in 2009, meant to increase the diversity and opportunities of U.S. students studying in China. Studying abroad represents a set of wonderful opportunities for both Chinese and American students. But issues of wealth, educational pressures, and cultural differences can bring challenges to international students. Going abroad for educational purposes also represents something different for students from both countries and is actualized in a variety of ways.

The Numbers

For American students looking to go abroad, China has been one of the most popular options for the past 10 years. According to the State Department for the 2010/2011 academic year, China was the 5th most popular place to study for American students, and the growth pattern shown in the chart below confirms this. Many aspects of studying abroad all influence where a student chooses to spend their time. Location, courses, language, and culture all play a role. Cost is also a major factor influencing whether or not Americans choose to study in China as part of their education. China is generally considered a cheaper place to live and study as opposed to the United States, and a good place for students who are strapped for cash to spend a semester. While currently this is true in some sense due to the weight of the dollar against the yuan, there are some cost disparities to study abroad in China as well. For public Chinese universities it will cost around 3,300-10,000 USD per year. While this is generally cheaper than public universities in America, these costs can differ, especially if a student works with a study abroad program or through their own university. Regardless of financial status, going through accredited university programs means students would just pay their regular expenses. However, American students are less likely to go for multiple years, which can bring down costs even more. Most American students only study for a year or a semester abroad, as opposed to the standard four years of undergraduate education. While the number of U.S.-based students studying abroad in China has been rapidly increasing for the past ten years, it is currently on a decline. Concerns such as pollution, future job opportunities, and differing study abroad options (usually for less than a year) all have contributed to the recent drop in numbers.

Chinese students, on the other hand, are coming to America in ever-increasing amounts to pursue their education. According to the Institute for International Education, there are approximately 124,000 Chinese undergraduates (and about 204,000 in graduate school) in the United States currently, making them the largest group of international students at 31.5%.  Both overseas and domestic marketing have made studying in the U.S. a viable option. Subway walls are plastered with SAT and ACT testing advertisements by organizations that train Chinese students to take the two major college entrance tests required by most U.S. colleges. This encouragement from their home nation as well as other pressures have definitely influenced the influx in study abroad students.

Cost, however, is not necessarily a driving force. Most Chinese students tend to pay more money to study abroad than their U.S. counterparts, and contribute significantly to the economy. “In the 2014-2015 academic year, Chinese students pumped $9.8 billion into the U.S. economy through tuition and fees“. A quick internet search will reveal that most information about visas and preparation are most enrolled in undergrad and graduate programs for at least a full year, usually for the longer duration of the degree or program, meaning that they will continue to spend money to study in the U.S.. The revenue also encourages campuses to advertise and provide resources to welcome and attract potential international students. This large influx has contributed to various Chinese student organizations on various campuses for international students as well as Chinese Americans looking for community.

There can be significant variation in the costs of tuition for Chinese students studying in America (where tuition is regarded as incredibly expensive), as shown in the above table. This is exacerbated by the fact that most international students who have to pay tuition and other expenses like visas are ineligible for federal aid on account of their status as an international student. While there are some scholarships avalible and increasing amounts of lower and middle-class Chinese families send their children to community college, many Chinese students who study at prestigious institutions in the United States come from affluent families. This influx of wealthy  students who often display their wealth in material ways has shaped the perception that most international students come from high-income backgrounds. Despite efforts by lower/middle-income international students, this remains a pervasive image in American students’ minds. This issue also hold true for American students studying in China—while there are many scholarship opportunities, white students households with higher incomes are overly represented in study abroad.


Despite potential cost inhibitions, many different factors persuade both Chinese and American students to seek some time abroad. The motivations to for a Chinese student to study in America and vice versa are quite similar at the core, but carry some stark differences as well. For Chinese nationals, there is an urge to escape the gaokao, the intense two-day exam held only once a year that determines whether or not a student goes to college and where they are able to study. Studying abroad also gives these students the freedom to choose area of study, and some view it as an investment that will help their entire family in the future.

While American students still have to take the ACT and SAT, studying abroad provides language skills and career opportunities harder to come by in the United States without international experience. A study on millennials studying abroad shows that current young adults tend to look for growth-related experiences, which can make them likely to turn to study abroad in their college years.


Studying abroad gives students exposure of a different culture, people, and history and allows them to introspectively examine the origins of their own beliefs as well as critique their ideas of normalcy. The Chinese idiom for which this article is named (“学然后知不足”) aptly sums up responses from both Chinese and American students who study abroad in the other respective country.  Changes in opinions as a result of going abroad are common among both Chinese and American students.

In the above survey conducted by Foreign Policy, most American students who study in China said that they returned with more favorable perceptions of China than when they left. While all surveys have their limitations, this still represents a contingent of American students that have been changed by studying in China. Foreign Policy also conducted a similar survey for Chinese students studying in the United States. Most reported being more open-minded, idealistic, and liberal as a result of their experience, but note that college in the U.S. is more academically rigorous than in China. Some students (both American and Chinese) have come to support China instead of oppose it in their years abroad. Historically and even to this day the Chinese government fears that studying abroad will fill Chinese students with too much “Western thought”. But these fears do not seem to represent any real threat to China, as an overwhelming takeaway from Chinese students was that the West has many great ideas, but not all of them are a fit for China.


Despite all of the benefits to be gained from studying abroad, there are also various difficulties— the previously discussed costs being an inhibitor on both sides. Issues such as language proficiency, cultural differences in work style, and the availability of resources all contribute to some Chinese students in America feeling isolated and frustrated with their abroad experience. The same can be said for American students having to go through their own period of cultural adjustment in China as well. For American minority students, studying in China brings a different set of challenges as they face marginalization and stereotyping from both in their home country and abroad as well.

Unfortunately, reports predict that the overall number of international students coming to America will fall due to President Trump’s immigration policies. Other limitations to study abroad also follow claims that the Chinese government is wary of Chinese students getting exposed to “Western Ideology”, such as  Shuping Yang’s controversial speech in which she describes the U.S. air as clean and the speech as free, receiving backlash from Chinese netizens both at home and abroad.

Falling numbers of U.S. students studying abroad have also produced initiatives that encourage study abroad and collaboration between the two nations, and stress the importance of student ambassadors. But the numbers are still dwindling, partially due to more American students having a negative perception of China and the country’s politics. Many programs are also unable to meet the needs of students with specific college requirements to fill. American students applying for jobs and internships that could have been aided by study abroad can also find themselves facing competition from Chinese students returning from studying abroad opportunities in the United States. It is important for the future of both nations to send cultural ambassadors to each other’s countries, and study abroad presents an environment that encourages students (the future leaders) to open their minds and hearts to people despite their differences.



Gretchen Trupp is a Summer 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.