Jane Chen will leave behind plenty of comforts when she leaves Hong Kong for GW in the fall. She’ll miss her mother’s home-cooked steamed fish, and she’s nervous about the language barrier that often disorients hundreds of international students on campus each year.
Chen, who will major in international business, is one of about 100 undergraduates from China and Hong Kong who will make up the freshman class this fall, a big expansion propelled by the University’s recruiting efforts that have more than quadrupled the number of Chinese GW students in five years.
“As strange as this may sound, we’re a bigger deal in China than we are even here,” said Forrest Maltzman, the senior vice provost who oversees the admissions office.
But that rapid growth, which has been a boon financially because most foreign undergraduates do not draw from the financial aid pool, now has GW scrambling to serve a population with different cultures, language skills and challenges.
In the past year, the International Services Office has laid out plans to link each international student up with special advisers to guide them academically and through the visa process.
It is also working out plans for more peer mentoring and tutoring — resources that Chinese students say have lacked. The University has also ramped up the number of English proficiency classes to help students adapt to a GW classroom.
And as the population of Chinese students swells, they also face natural, unique hurdles to integrating into life at GW and in the U.S: “It is a human tendency to socialize with others who are similar to ourselves,” Greg Leonard, director of the International Services Office, said.
“We encourage international students to become more integrated into the fabric of campus life at GW, to take chances, to take the initiative and reach out,” Leonard added. “That’s easier to do if you’re one of three students from your country. It’s not so easy if there are 1,238 other students on campus from your country.”
Yixin Wang, a junior from Guangzhou who heads a 200-member Chinese cultural student organization at GW, said students need a stronger push to get more involved in campus life. And, he said, if the numbers of Chinese students continue to grow, that could become more difficult.
“We have good relationships within our community and connections with the school. But as the number grows, I don’t know what will happen,” he said.
Winning the popularity contest
So far, GW has been well-positioned to recruit heavily in China. The University formed a team of admissions representatives to travel internationally last year, with one officer in China for 30 days total, spending time at high schools and college fairs, Maltzman said. The University does not commission agents to pitch GW to Chinese students — a practice at universities like Tulane that has come under fire ethically.
Part of GW’s success in China stems from a heavy local presence from administrators and programs. Eight top officials, including University President Steven Knapp, traveled to Chinese cities Beijing and Chengdu in early June to forge ties with universities and network with business leaders and government officials at the Fortune Global Forum.
Vice President for China Operations Doug Guthrie has led efforts there for the University since the China scholar became GW School of Business dean in 2010.
The business school launched graduate finance and accounting programs with Renmin University in Suzhou, China two years ago, and Guthrie said in an email that the University is still trying to attain degree-granting status there, which is difficult and rare with a bureaucratic and stingy Chinese government.
“GW has a strong reputation and brand in China, partly because of the work Dean Guthrie is doing. I’d say our visibility is probably disproportionate in China,” Provost Steven Lerman said.
There’s also a natural advantage for GW, said Chen, the incoming freshman: “Everyone in China knows about George Washington because he was the president. When most people hear about George Washington University they think it must be a very good school because it has the president’s name.”
That success, earned or natural, has paid off. GW raked in nearly $110 million in tuition and fees from international students in 2011-2012, according to a November study by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
That was the third-most money in tuition and fees from international students out of its 14 market basket schools, pacing ahead of universities like American and Georgetown, but behind Boston and Southern California.
International students also do not receive financial aid from GW or federal sources, though Maltzman said some get merit aid checks. A prospering Chinese economy, which is benefitting families primarily in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, helped send nearly 18 percent more Chinese students abroad in 2012 than the year before, according to a June report by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
But the University’s public relations wound opened deeper in China than in the U.S. when it was unranked by U.S. News & World Report, Wang said.
Reports of the unranking, as well as a searing and controversial Washington Post story last April about GW students’ party habits, bounced around the Chinese social network Renren, he added, potentially hurting the University’s reputation among Chinese employers.
“Since most of us are going to go back to China to find a job, on our resumes says I graduate from GW. ‘Oh,’ the employer might say, ‘GW was that school that had all the scandals,'” Wang said.
Maltzman said the news didn’t prevent Chinese students from applying in record numbers, though he said admissions officers answered more questions about November’s unranking from more international parents and students than American ones. Still, nearly 1,100 Chinese high school students applied to GW this year — nearly three times as many as four years ago.
Building a second home
All of that popularity is bunk if the University can’t help Chinese students feel more at home in Foggy Bottom, said Andrea van Niekerk, a former Brown University admissions officer who now works as a consultant at the firm College Goals.
“It’s crucial for the University because the happier those students are, the more they are an intellectual resource and can help recruit other students,” she said. “But it only works if those students become well-integrated into the total fabric of life at GW and not just on the financial sheet.”
Wang, the junior whose organization puts on karaoke contests and speed dating events, said some of these efforts to improve international student life have come up short in the past because they were not driven by international students.
He said while the University is adding cultural events to bring international students closer together, he doesn’t see enough representation from foreign undergraduates in groups like Class Council and the alumni office.
“I think they have a lack of experience. They are run by American students, they don’t know what international students’ preferences are,” he said.
But over the past year, the University has tried to collect data to measure how well they are doing that, forming a committee last summer to focus on international student success.
One piece of its set of recommendations, which will take shape this year, has been to combine the August Colonial Inauguration with the regular international student orientation in order to “eliminate duplicate orientation sessions, and to streamline and focus orientation messaging and content,” Leonard said.
GW will also add summer English proficiency courses during its summer sessions, hoping to help students pick up language skills more quickly.
And the University has paid an undisclosed amount for software to help track visa issues, and will add special advisers for international students to work with throughout their four years at GW.
“We believe that these more personal, long-term relationships can only serve to facilitate cultural adjustment,” Leonard said.