Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
The food, the language, the students, the classes — for Neo Nie, everything at Governors State University is different from Guangdong University of Technology, the school he attended in China.
Everything but his sport, table tennis.
Governors State had never fielded an intercollegiate sports team before its year-old table tennis team. But the team is now ranked 16th in the country, ahead of much larger schools such as Penn State and Michigan State.
The secret to its success? All but three players on the team are from China, where table tennis is the national sport.
At schools locally and nationally, Chinese students are enrolling in record numbers — a sign of how strong the Chinese economy is and how valuable an American degree remains.
“We’re invading your country,” joked Jun Niu, a 27-year-old doctoral student in math at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Niu said a degree from the United States is a hot commodity in developing China.
“If you get a degree in China and then get a graduate degree in the U.S., it’s a plus,” he said. “You have a more diverse educational background and you have better English.”
Foreign students pay full tuition, may pay additional fees and typically don’t get financial aid, so enrolling these students brings a financial benefit for schools struggling to balance their budgets. Chinese students get language skills and an American degree, and American students benefit from having foreign students in classes and dormitories, university officials say.
Of the 691,000 foreign students who enrolled in American universities in the 2009-10 academic year, nearly 128,000 (18 percent) were Chinese. China exported more students to the United States than any other country last academic year and 30 percent more than the previous year, according to the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors 2010 report.
In Illinois, China ranked as the country of origin for 6,800 of the nearly 31,100 foreign students at colleges and universities. China was followed by India, South Korea, Taiwan and Canada as the top five countries sending students to Illinois public and private schools.
Most foreign college students came from China to the U.S. twice before — in the late 1980s and the late 1990s. Then, China sent mostly graduate students studying science and technology. Now, Chinese students increasingly are coming to study as undergraduates.
“There is a whole new wave of middle-class parents in China who want the best education they can get for their child,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education. “And they can pay for it.”
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has 7,223 foreign students enrolled as undergraduate and graduate students this school year. During the 2009-2010 school year, China surpassed South Korea as providing the most foreign students at U of I.
U of I officials said that, unlike other local schools, they do not have a recruiting presence in China. Students hear about Illinois’ flagship campus through word of mouth, they said.
The campus ranks third nationally for the number of foreign students attending and has more of them than any other public university in the United States, according to the Open Doors report.
Wolfgang Schloer, the interim provost for international affairs at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said he was surprised by how quickly the number of Chinese students there has grown. He said China has increased capacity in its universities but still can’t handle demand.
“There is a huge premium placed on higher education, and students have to go somewhere,” he said.
Robert Easter, the campus’ interim chancellor and provost, said major Illinois companies are willing to pay for Chinese students to study in the U.S.
“There is an interest on the part of our Illinois corporations that are doing a lot of business in China to have employees who have a U.S. education,” he said.
Five years ago at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Carlo Segre, associate dean for graduate admissions, said students from India outnumbered students from China more than 5 to 1.
“This last year, it’s almost totally flipped from what it was before,” he said, and Chinese students are now the predominant foreign group at IIT.
IIT is second after Urbana-Champaign in the total number of foreign students on campus, followed by UIC, Northwestern and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
There can be conflict between foreign students and Americans. A UCLA student’s posting of a video this month mocking Asian students — in this case, Japanese, not Chinese — has led to a broader discussion of problems that Asian students may face.
Writing in Inside Higher Ed, author Allie Grasgreen described how some Asian students feel they are held to higher standards by some professors.
Non-Asian students may see Asian students “as being basically a privileged group, a group that is taking over the university system,” Rosalind S. Chou, co-author of “Myth of the Model Minority,” told Inside Higher Ed.
IIT’s Segre said he tells foreign students to move beyond their peer group if they want to get the most out of their American experience.
“We’re very close to Chinatown, and Chinese students feel comfortable in this part of town,” he said. “I do encourage them not to have this comfort level and to immerse themselves in English.”
Easter said American students benefit by having international students on campus, creating more of the global community into which students will graduate. But he and officials at other Illinois universities acknowledged that large groups of students from a particular country often self-segregate.
Keira Huang, 22, a senior at the U of I at Urbana-Champaign who transferred from a Chinese university after her sophomore year, credited her American boyfriend with introducing her into a social circle of American students. That’s not the experience of many Chinese students, she said.
“They definitely stick with each other,” she said. “Most of them complain that we want to have more American friends, practice English and learn more about the Western campus. But they stick with each other maybe because they are shy or afraid of a new environment.”
Huang said the campus culture, in and out of the classroom, is looser here than in China.
“People go out a lot here to the bars,” she said. “People are so casual here. In China, we are more serious.”
She’s heading to the London School of Economics for a master’s degree in the fall, with no regrets about leaving home.
“I’m so happy that I made the decision,” she said. “I like different cultures, I like to explore a new world and I like that it’s an open, casual and free environment.”