Parent Magazine

How Chinese students are seizing the best college education in the world

By Sara Rimer. Photo by Robin Mas

In August 2013, a sweltering Nanjing was living up to its reputation as one of the Three Furnaces of China. Visiting businessmen hole up in luxury skyscraper hotels downtown. At the Starbucks café at the Westin mall, twenty-somethings wearing hip, chunky black glasses sip iced green tea lattes.

Lily Lingxiu Ge, preparing to join Boston University’s College of Engineering as a freshman, is in her bedroom at her family’s modern, air-conditioned apartment, sorting through her new winter clothes.

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“I heard Boston will be very cold,” says Ge (ENG’17), who’s wearing the black-and-white panda slippers she’d exchanged for her pink Converse sneakers at the front door. “I heard it snows up to your knees.”

She hugs her dog, an exuberant white Samoyed named Rice, and goes to the dining room to help her mother, Helen Xu, make tea. Her father, Alan Ge, is due home soon from the high-tech company he started on a shoestring when Lily was a little girl. She plans to major in computer engineering so she can help run the company—or who knows, she might end up working in the United States.

“I heard not many Chinese girls study engineering,” Ge says. “My mother is worried it will be hard for me, that I’ll be lonely.”

The outgoing, self-assured Ge declares that she is not at all worried. “I want to be like my father,” she says. “He’s brave, he challenges everything. I don’t want to be a traditional Chinese girl.”

It is August 20, three days before her 18th birthday. In seven days she will get on a plane in Shanghai with her backpack and two suitcases and travel halfway around the world to a country her father has visited once, 14 years ago, and that her mother has never been to.

“BU,” Ge says, “is the dream school.”

To get an idea of the demographic shift that has taken place at BU in the past few years, consider a few numbers: in fall 2008, 42 of 4,131 freshmen were from China. In fall 2013, the numbers were 410 of 3,807 freshmen. (By fall 2014, BU was home to 1,484 students from China out of a total of 15,834 undergraduates.)

The demographic change has been even greater at other campuses across the country. In the 2012–2013 academic year, the number of undergraduates from China in the United States rose to 109,604, up from 79,989. With undergraduate and graduate students combined, students from China numbered 243,623 in 2012–2013, an increase from 202,051 in 2011–2012, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education.

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