Last year, Dai Yinlin was the only student from China who was attending Southwestern.
This year, Dai has plenty of company. Southwestern welcomed 10 new students from China this fall as part of its largest group ever of international students.
“Last year I met lots of nice people on campus,” said Dai, who is from Chengdu in the Sichuan Province, which is in southwest China. “But it is great now that there are more Chinese students because we can make Chinese food together and can speak our own language. That always puts me in a better mood.”
Dai said he came to Southwestern because of the wide range of majors it offers, its small size, its location near Austin, and the hot weather and sunshine. Several of the students from China who enrolled at Southwestern this fall said they did so after finding posts from Dai on the Chinese social media sites known as Renren and Weibo, which are similar to Facebook and Twitter. Most said they decided to come to Southwestern for the same reasons Dai did.
“I came to Southwestern because I love small schools and I know Southwestern is famous for its Political Science Department and being close to Austin,” said Lily Liu, who is one of the 10 new students. “Before applying I reviewed pictures and talked to Admissions.”
Ruoying Hao also did research on the Central Texas area before accepting her offer from Southwestern. “I was accepted to many different schools, but Southwestern has beautiful weather, the Texas economy is great, and we are close to Austin,” Ruoying said.
Ruoying jumped right into life on campus by becoming involved with the student environmental group Students for Environmental Activism and Knowledge (SEAK). In October, she went with three other members of SEAK to the Powershift conference in Pittsburgh, Pa., which is a national gathering for student environmental activists.
“When I got my acceptance package, I was given a list of all the organizations on campus, and SEAK really stood out for me,” Ruoying said. “They are concerned about environmental issues and are taking actions to make the campus greener.”
With the influx of so many new international students this year – especially the ones from China – several new support services have been put in place. A special International Student Orientation was held the day before New Student Orientation and a part-time English Language Learning Resource Specialist has been hired and is based in the Debby Ellis Writing Center. The new students said they have found the Writing Center to be particularly helpful.
“The Writing Center has helped me correct my grammar and has taught me how to improve my writing and English skills,” said Grace Yu.
Students said their First-Year Seminars helped them get to know classmates outside of class. “FYS allows us to be diverse and offers opportunity to work outside of class, which is a totally new experience,” said Yeats Ye, who is also from Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. Ye participated in religion professor Molly Jensen’s First-Year Seminar on “Just Food/Food Justice.” Students in that FYS shared recipes from their various cultural traditions and helped students at Mitchell Elementary School replant garden beds at their school.
Patricia Schiaffini, an assistant professor of Chinese who has been working closely with the Chinese students, said Southwestern students who are studying Chinese are helping the Chinese students a lot, especially the American students who have studied abroad in China.
“They have welcomed these students with open arms because they found an equally friendly welcome when they were in China,” Schiaffini said.
The students from China and the American students who are studying Chinese meet every Monday for lunch and have created a WeChat account that enables them to get in touch with one another to ask for rides to go shopping, or plan activities just for fun. So far, the students have gone together to local Chinese restaurants and to the new Chinatown area in Austin.
“It is a mutually beneficial exchange that allows for the Chinese students to feel more at home in the United States and for the American students to strengthen their ties with China,” Schiaffini said. “I am excited to see this camaraderie.”
Schiaffini said that while most of the students from China came to Southwestern with an idea about what they wanted to study, that will probably change soon due to all the academic and extracurricular experiences they are having.
“That is why they chose Southwestern − because we allow them the possibility of exploring and we lead them into so many fields they did not even knew existed before,” Schiaffini said. “If these Chinese students had landed in a big career-oriented university like UT, they would have had almost no chance to explore new disciplines and would have chosen the majors they had in mind as first-year students. They would have spent most of their time with the huge Chinese student community attending those universities and would have had very few chances to get involved in student groups and to make friends outside the Chinese community. All the Chinese students I know who have attended liberal arts colleges loved their experience. So far I think these students are doing so, too.”
–Student interviews by Maritza Robles