Engineering dreams: U.S. Chinese student population growth in historical disciplinary context.

Author:Tobin, Kathleen A.

Universities in the United States have experienced remarkable growth in the number of international students in recent years, and of Chinese students in particular. A significant portion of those students choose to major in engineering, but this is not simply a contemporary trend. In many ways, internationalization of U.S. student bodies seems to be a recent phenomenon, as universities actively seek to globalize their perspectives and engagement. From an academic perspective, programs have embraced international outlooks in ways that reach far beyond the conventions of world history and literature. Communication and nursing programs, for example, now include global components. Changes seem even more fundamental at institutional levels as top-ranking administrators market their institutions to key constituents and work to balance budgets through grants and enrollment increases. Private institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago have long attracted students from around the world and prepared them as international leaders in politics and business; however, state schools once largely reliant on tax revenues, and dedicated to serving local students through quality education and affordable tuition, have turned to out-of-state and international students who pay higher rates. Tier-one schools compete for grant money designated for research involving international faculty with global applications. In addition, they and smaller schools compete for international students. As Chinese students comprise the majority, there has been growing concern that they may be targeted too aggressively in recruitment endeavors, and that university personnel are viewing this group of prospective enrollees with simply short-term vision.

However, the presence of Chinese students in the United States is not a recent story; rather, its history extends more than one hundred years. It is a contributing factor in migration history, for even when a majority of students ultimately return to their home countries, they influence changes in culture and policy in the United States. It is also representative of broader international dynamics, as Chinese student enrollment patterns in the United States reflect shifts in diplomatic relations between the two nations. The fact that significant percentages of students have chosen engineering as their field of study is also worth examining, as this was not simply a coincidence. Chinese leaders sought engineering expertise in their efforts to modernize their nation, and Chinese students who dreamed of studying abroad understood that engineering degrees would earn them respect. In studying population history, it is essential to consider specific episodes that complement the larger story. To that end, this paper provides a framework for looking at Chinese engineering students as a feature of U.S.-China history.

The story of Chinese studying abroad in the United States begins in the nineteenth century. The "Self-Strengthening Movement" of the Qing government sponsored education abroad in the 1870s and 1880s, which included "China's first hundred" students in the United States (1872-1881). (1) The government's intention during that period was to acquire new knowledge, improve the character of the students, and ultimately expand the capacity of China. Observers feared the students were quickly adopting American lifestyles, so the program was short-lived. In addition, anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States created a hostile environment for the general Chinese population and therefore Chinese students. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that ended immigration allowed for continued entrance of students, but a relational shift was underway. Until this time, there had been in place an agreement that Chinese students could enroll in U.S. military academies, but that, too, would come to an end. (2)

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 prompted the Qing government to initiate social and political reforms for the sake of self-preservation, including a new emphasis on education. Efforts at home were designed to ensure Chinese students maintained traditional culture; however, all things Western became increasingly attractive, and were considered key to modernization. In the end, Western learning and the acquisition of technical knowledge were seen as beneficial to the future of China, even if they meant a loss of some cultural traditions. This new wave of study abroad in the early twentieth century was considerably more "forward-thinking" than the earlier education mission and was one that expected students to learn military and other technology, as well as engineering. Chinese leaders felt pressure to bring the country into the modern age in order to compete with Japan and the West.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the increase of Chinese students in the United States was steady and progressive. In 1906, the United States was host to 300 students, 650 in 1911, 1,000 in 1915, 1,200 in 1918, and roughly 1,600 by 1927. The majority of these students were enrolled in various universities in the East and Midwest--as anti-Chinese sentiment in Western states remained strong--and formed student organizations such as the Chinese Students' Alliance. Only a minority of Chinese students enrolled in American universities between 1909 and 1929 stayed long enough to complete their degrees. Still, some 1,300 earned bachelor and other post-secondary decrees during this period with the assistance of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program, which paid for preparation, transportation, and tuition to American universities. (3) In addition, at least 110 Chinese students earned doctorates from American universities between 1905 and 1929. (4)

The ideals of pragmatism weighed heavily in the education of Chinese students both at home and abroad during industrial modernization efforts. These ideals dovetailed well with traditional ideals of pragmatic and utilitarian education embedded in Confucianism. Education leaders still valued the study of literature, for example, as one component of a student's learning, but students were to acquire applied skills they could ultimately put to use. What Chinese society came to value even more in the early decades of the twentieth century was professional specialization. Though specialization limited the capacity for a broad education of individuals, it would ultimately give China more qualified professionals and international credibility. The discipline that met all these criteria was engineering. Centered on technical knowledge grounded in utilitarian education, it would become highly specialized and professionalized, and would promise to bring China into the modern world. In 1914, three-quarters of Chinese students destined for study in the United States chose engineering as their major. An Engineering Committee was established, with seven departments representing specializations, to aid in education and assurance that students were distributed efficiently and effectively across the engineering disciplines. (5) Not all students remained in the discipline once they began their studies, and by the 1920s and 1930s an increasing number were turning toward business and the social sciences. Sociology in particular drew students interested in understanding and participating in a changing Chinese society. Still, the most popular major was engineering. (6)

A rise in...

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