US needs to do more to address Chinese parents’ concerns

With the COVID-19 pandemic having subsided, international students are grappling with another pandemic unique to the United States: gun violence.

On 9 November, Shaoxiong Zheng, a 24-year-old recent graduate from the University of Chicago, was shot and killed during an armed robbery in broad daylight while walking home from campus.

Exactly 10 months earlier, on 9 January, Yiran Fan, a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, was fatally shot in a shooting rampage while sitting in his car in a parking garage in Hyde Park.

The news sent shock waves across Chinese social media, frightening thousands of Chinese families whose children are either already in the United States or planning to study here in the future. Their tragic deaths also hit home for the Chinese community at the university, compelling hundreds of them to rally for tighter safety measures around campus. Those who participated in the protest chanted: “We are here to study, not to die.”

Tragically, Shaoxiong and Yiran’s tragic deaths were merely two out of nearly 40,000 registered gun violence deaths in the United States in 2021 alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group that catalogues incidents of gun violence in the United States.

In China, where possessing firearms is illegal, such numbers are nearly inconceivable and spark an acute sense of fear of gun culture in the United States among Chinese parents. As a result, gun violence and racist attacks against Asians are major concerns among Chinese families, with decreasing numbers of students choosing to study at American institutions.

A major deterrent for international student mobility

Concerns about gun violence among Chinese students are nothing new, of course, but during the pandemic, they took a backseat to COVID-19.

As the health crisis subsides, however, they are once again resurfacing as Chinese families continue to weigh the pros and cons of sending their sons and daughters – most of whom were born under the One Child Policy and are thus their parents’ only child – to study in the United States.

Recent trends regarding Chinese student enrolment in the United States illustrate this. The newly released Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) shows that, for the first time since 2015, the total enrolment of international students in the 2020-21 academic year – the height of the pandemic – fell below one million, to 914,095.

There was a 15% drop in the number of Chinese students, totalling over 55,000 students, which contributed towards 30% of the total loss of international students.

While the recent snapshot survey conducted by IIE among 860 colleges and universities revealed a dramatic increase in new international students since last year, overall numbers are still far below the one million mark.

“Many of our families are still determined to study in the United States because they have spent years preparing for it, but they have grown more wary of school locations,” Xiaoli Yu, a veteran college counsellor at Beijing No 4 High School, one of China’s premier public high schools, told me.

“For families who are undecided on their children’s study abroad plans, they are most easily deterred by these violent attacks to go elsewhere,” she added. “We used to have students from the Gaokao [Chinese college entrance exam] track transfer to the international track, but this has been a rare occurrence now.”

Percy Jiang, director of college counselling at Beijing’s Keystone Academy, views the situation even more starkly. “Now is the time that tests students’ true determination to study in the United States,” he said.

Though he said it half-jokingly, he noted that compared to the previous cohort, 20% fewer of Keystone’s graduating class last year enrolled at US colleges and universities, a rare trend at this elite private school that sends most of its graduates to the United States. While the pandemic was the major contributor to this decline, anti-Asian hate and gun violence, he suspects, will continue to disrupt mobility trends among his students in the future.

Dire consequences if no action taken

The fact that studying in the United States now requires a great deal of thinking and willpower speaks volumes about the current state of affairs.

To expect that things will naturally fall back to where they were before the pandemic without more concerted efforts from higher education institutions across the nation risks seeing interest among international students – Chinese students in particular – continue to dwindle, diluting America’s prominence as the most sought-after study destination in the world for international talent.

As many peer countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom catch up to the US as preferred study destinations for international students, the US ought to think more critically and strategically about better preparing and protecting international students for a more fruitful, engaging and, most importantly, safe experience while in our care.

Watching Shaoxiong’s mother – a single parent – giving a eulogy to her son at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel was heartbreaking. Her son’s funeral was her first time leaving China, her first time seeing her son’s campus and her first time stepping foot in the United States.

Two days before Shaoxiong was shot, she received a bottle of fragrance in the mail from him as a birthday present. She brought the fragrance with her and wore it at Shaoxiong’s funeral hoping that he would sense the smell and follow her home.

Xiaofeng Wan is an associate dean of admissions and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, United States. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Executive EdD in Higher Education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, United States.