As Chinese, Korean enrollment leaps, U works to meet needs

Jay Shin studies with Donghyuk Park.
Jay Shin and his friend Donghyuk Park, both seniors from South Korea majoring in accounting at the University of Minnesota, study for their midterms, Nov. 25, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Chinese and South Korean undergraduates have led a decade-long surge in foreign enrollment at the University of Minnesota.

More than 2,600 foreign undergraduates attended the Twin Cities campus last year, a jump of more than 400 percent over the past decade and far beyond the 50 percent growth seen nationally during the same period.

The two groups have become so large that university officials have started teaching faculty and staff how to work more effectively with Chinese and Korean students. It's a move the U says is important if it wants to give foreign students the service they deserve.

A thriving international student body helps the university "maintain our place on the stage of global institutions," said Meredith McQuaid, the university system's dean of international programs.

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Just 25 Chinese undergrads were on the Twin Cities campus in 2006, according to university data. Last year they numbered almost 1,340, making them the most numerous foreign undergraduate group on campus.

South Koreans are the second largest group, with more than 460 studying at the U last year — five times the number on campus in 2006.

Chinese and South Koreans are a rising presence on campuses across the United States. American colleges now educate more than four times as many Chinese as they did a decade ago, and they're home to about 30 percent more South Koreans.

The University of Minnesota hasn't focused on recruiting those foreign students, campus officials say, although in 2009 it did open an office in Beijing that handles some recruiting, along with managing academic partnerships and alumni relations in China.

There have been beefed-up recruiting efforts over the last decade led to an overall jump in the number of all foreign undergraduates. Applications from economically growing countries including China and South Korea have outpaced those from other regions, McQuaid said.

Foreign undergraduates pay about 50 percent more in tuition than Minnesota residents do — more than $19,000 a year, compared to about $12,000 for Minnesotans. They don't have access to state or federal financial aid, and although the U does provide some scholarships for foreign undergrads, most pay their own way.

With so many Chinese and South Koreans now on campus, the university is taking pains to understand their cultural and academic habits.

"Because Asian people tend to have similar physical characteristics, there's a potential that faculty, staff and American students will see all the Asians as one big group," McQuaid said. "Obviously, we can't study each individual, and we want to be careful about not overgeneralizing among these populations."

But the university hopes that by teaching employees how to deal with those students more effectively, it can prevent some potentially frustrating misunderstandings in the classroom and advising office.

U of M officials say differing cultural expectations have at times caused a little frustration and have kept some students from making the most of their time at the U.

Jay Shin has dinner with his friends.
Accounting majors Jay Shin, right, DaMin Yoo and Donghyuk Park, all seniors at the University of Minnesota, have dinner together at a Korean restaurant near campus, Nov. 25, 2014.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

To help bridge the cultural divide, last year the university hired a Chinese counselor to help faculty and staff understand Chinese students — such as why many don't speak up in class, or why they often experience greater difficulty than American students in handling the wide variety of classes to take.

This year, the school has turned to South Koreans.

Anny Lin, an academic adviser at the Carlson School of Management, said she recently noticed that despite their large numbers, South Korean students often didn't show up for career help and other international student services.

"I realized part of my professional learning here was missing," she said. "I was able to serve other international students well, but how come I didn't see the South Korean international students in my programming?"

Student surveys showed that many South Korean undergrads prefer to take jobs back home after studying, and so don't seek out the university's career services. Lin says the U can still teach those students skills that can help them back home.

Also, many South Koreans rely more heavily on the advice of parents and fellow students than university advisers. That can lead to problems, school officials say, because bad information can lead them to make bad academic decisions that could delay their degrees.

Some academic advisers also scratch their heads when male South Korean students inform them they must suddenly leave to serve in the military back home — a two-year period that usually lands in the middle of their studies.

Accounting major student Jay Shin.
University of Minnesota accounting major Jay Shin has dinner with his two best friends at a Korean restaurant near the campus on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minn.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

When they return two years later, their language skills have deteriorated and they've forgotten much of what they've studied.

"I had to start all from the beginning," recalled 23-year-old accounting senior Jay Shin of Seoul, who recently completed his military service. "I didn't know what's going on with debits and credits and what the professor was talking about."

He said it took him several months of outside study to relearn what he'd absorbed in two previous classes.

If university staffers understand the military obligation, counselors say, they can help students such as Shin plan for it and minimize the damage.

This move to understand specific cultural groups comes amid a big change in the makeup of foreign enrollment.

Just a sixth of the U's foreign population back in 2005, undergraduates now rival their graduate counterparts in number.

That growth in undergraduates is important, because undergrads tend to need more support services — in academics, careers, and even life on campus.

Graduate students usually have some experience on their own before coming to campus, but many undergraduates are younger and away from home for the first time, said Alisa Eland, associate director of the U's International Student and Scholar Services office.

Campus officials hope that addressing the issues facing foreign students can pay off in the long run. When happy graduates return home, they become alumni who can help with recruiting, fund-raising and raising the U's profile abroad.

U of M intercultural trainer and researcher Soo Kyoung Lee said, "They can be the university's big asset."