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Yung-Hwa Anna Chow, NACADA Emerging Leader

Yung-Hwa Anna Chow.gifAn advisor from Washington State University shared a recent encounter with a student from China. “One day, I had one too many triple lattes,” she explained. “I was going 100 miles an hour telling this student his requirements and what he needed to do. When I was done, this poor student very politely said ’I don’t understand a word you just said.’” The advisor responded ”look, I wrote it all down for you, too.”  To which the student noted ”I’m very sorry, but I don’t understand what you wrote.” With the continued increase in international students, especially those from China, many academic advisors may have had a similar experience. Often we are unsure if students understand what we have said or if they feel comfortable seeking help from us. It would be helpful if we understood their educational experiences if we are to work effectively with them.

Since 2001, China has sent the second largest number of students to study in the U.S., behind only India (Open Doors 2009a, ¶ 1). Last year, international students contributed $17.8 billion to the U.S. economy, and 70% of all international students’ primary funding comes from sources outside of the U.S. (Open Doors 2009b, ¶ 12). Not surprisingly, international students are actively recruited to North American universities and colleges, not only because they generate revenue in tough economic times, but because they increase diversity and cultural exposure for our domestic students.

An overwhelming majority of international students from China have had some college education before arriving in America (Open Doors, 2009, Table 3); thus, it is helpful to learn about the Chinese education system. China, since ancient times, has placed great importance in education (Luo and Wendel, 1999, p. 281). As part of China’s efforts to integrate into the global economy, there has been a substantial increased emphasis on education. Yet, college still remains outside the grasp of most Chinese youth who only finish the equivalent of 9th grade. Many students in the rural parts of China do not have the resources to attend high school or college. In addition, all Chinese students must test into high schools; those seeking to attend college must apply to take the gao kao, or high test, to qualify for college entrance.

The competitive nature of the gao kao exam causes teachers and parents to place considerable pressure on the students; psychological problems and suicide are not uncommon amongst school children (Davey, Lian & Higgins, 2007, p. 385). Prior to the exam students select their top three universities, and sometimes majors at these universities. An above average gao kao score will often allow students to attend one of their top their choices; students who place below average can try to apply to another, usually less prestigious, university, or study and take the exam again the following year.

Once admitted into a Chinese university, students enter a cohort system where they take the same courses with the same group of classmates until they reach degree completion. Very rarely do students in China change majors, as they are tied to their cohort and their exam score. Thus there is no academic advising as we know it in China.

Given the fundamental differences between the educational systems, students from China often experience many issues when they arrive to attend U.S. or Canadian institutions. One common issue is that students may not know what to ask academic advisors. Another issue is that advisors may not know if students understood what was discussed during advising meetings. International students may leave an advising session discouraged when questions go unanswered. Advisors likewise can be frustrated when they later discover that students did not fully understand what was conveyed in a session.

Edwards and Ran (2006), as quoted in Davey, Lian, and Higgins, have argued that, “problems commonly faced by Chinese students in overseas universities—such as communication difficulties, weak social skills, and tendency to conform with groups of students from the same country—may be partly attributed to the types of skills developed in preparation of the university entrance exam” (p. 386).  Whereas the student discussed above told his advisor he did not understand, it is more common that Chinese students nod or remain quiet to show respect. Abel (2002) also noted that “most international students are accustomed to listening and learning rather than speaking in class” (p. 16). This especially makes sense given that students in China are educated through “a banking system” where teachers provide the answers and students are receptacles that retain the information.

Advising international students from China is a very complex process given the educational and cultural differences and often language barriers. Diane Oliver (1999) suggested that “advisors can increase their effectiveness by taking a more holistic view of international students needs” (p. 22). Although this article specifically addresses Chinese international students, the lessons learned here can be generalized to all international student groups. When we learn more about individual international education systems, accept cultural differences, and learn basic greetings in the native languages of our students, we can better serve all of our international students. How might our interactions with an international student from China improve when we start a session by saying ni how?

Yung-Hwa Anna Chow
General Studies and Advising Center
Washington State University


Abel, Charles F. (2002). Academic Success and the International Student: Research and Recommendations.  New Directions For Higher Education, No. 117, Spring 2002: 13-20.

Davey, Gareth, Lian, Chuan De, and Higgins, Louise. (2007). The university entrance examination system in China. Journal of Further and Higher Education, Vol. 31, No. 4, November 2007, pp. 385-396.

Luo, Jiali and Wendel, Frederick. (1999). Junior high school education in China.  The Clearing House.  Washington: May/Jun 1999.  Vol. 72, Iss. 5; pg. 279-283.

Oliver, Diane E. (1999). Improving services for international students by understanding differences between Japanese and United States culture and educational systems. NACADA Journal, 18(1): 22-27.

Open Doors 2009a. (2009). Country Fact Sheet—China.  Retrieved from http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=150860

Open Doors 2009b. (2009).  Record Numbers of International Students in U.S. Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=150649

Open Doors 2009.  Table 3, by Academic Level. Retrieved on from http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=150827

Cite this article using APA style as: Chow, Y. (2010, September). Ni how: What academic advisors can do to better serve students from China. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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