These days, Dong Mao has replaced his Jack Jones (a popular male fashion brand in China) with A&F and American Eagle. He meets his friends at the Java House. For lunch, he ponders pizza versus hamburgers.
You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but he's adapting to a new culture, a long way from home.
“I say ‘how is everything going’ a lot,” said Mao, a junior from Henan Province majoring in Account and Finance at the University of Iowa.
Mao decided to come to the University of Iowa, persuaded by the lower tuition and living expenses and a $16,000 scholarship that covers some of the more than $40,000 tuition at the University of Iowa's Business School, the most popular school among Chinese undergraduates.
“[Tuition] is much cheaper than private universities, and I get scholarship here,” said Mao.
Mao is a part of a surge of Chinese high school graduates enrolled at the University of Iowa. According to statistics provided by the International Program at the University of Iowa, the number of Chinese undergraduates enrolled in UI jumped to 852 in 2010 from 24 in 2005.
There is no sign that these numbers will be slowing down any time soon, and the University of Iowa is looking to capitalize on the trend.
Indeed, as Iowa’s college-age population is shrinking in coming years, out-of-state student and international students will be needed to fill in slots, said Scott King, the Associate Dean of the University of Iowa’s International Program.
UI has launched collaborative programs for reaching more Chinese students. For example, in 2008, The China-BESTS (Belin-Blank Exceptional Student Talent Search) program brought 38 Chinese students to UI for a three-week summer course and lots of cultural immersion.
“The University of Iowa also has several full-time undergraduate recruiters to meet with parents and potential new students,” King said.
But affordability and university promotion are not the only two reasons at play in Chinese students’ choice of the University of Iowa.
For the past year, people have asked Yichen Xu:
“Why Iowa City?”
“Oh, is that the corn field, potato state or pork state?”
Xu, who comes from East China University of Science and Technology, Shanghai, is an exchange undergraduate student studying Journalism at the University of Iowa.
After growing up and studying in the big international city of Shanghai for 19 years, Xu said made the “illogical” decision to come to UI as most of her peers were flocking to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
“I am sick of living in the big city. I am especially attracted by the quiet life and beautiful view in this small town,” said Xu.
Xu has noticed some differences from living in the big city. Most Chinese undergraduates studying abroad come from upper-middle-class families in China. They are so accustomed to big city life in China with convenient public transit and countless shopping malls.
In Iowa City, Xu needs to take a bus to downtown and then transfer a bus to Coralville to get the biggest mall in the Iowa City area.
“It’s quite different from Shanghai. I cannot get a taxi on the street. On the bus schedule, the arrivals are only twice per hour. There is no H&M, ZARA (fashion brands) in the mall,” Xu said
However, shopping and entertainment are not a big deal for Xu.
“I feel fortunate to come here. I love sitting on the grass and reading my favorite books," Xu said. "I can really focus on my study, no more distractions.”
While China’s students have long filled nature science majors, such as Electronic Engineering, Bio-Chemistry and Computer Science, it's undergraduates like Xu who now represent a modestly growing group of Chinese students who major in Liberal Arts subjects.
King said this diversity in majors will make the number of Chinese students even more apparent to those on campus.
“Chinese undergraduates get noticed by studying in more diverse programs and coming out to join different kinds of courses,” King said.
A bespectacled student, Xie Wang was accepted to Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Iowa. Now a senior, she is considering applying for the creative writing program.
As one of the four UNESCO recognized Cities of Literature across the world, Iowa City is well known for its International Writing Program. The program was established by the university and co-founded by Hualing Nie, a famous Chinese writer.
“It is a good place for writing and I was attracted by its unique connection with China when I applied for it,” said Wang.
Xu also applied to the UI after learning of its International Writing program.
“When I got to know that Xianyong Bai, Yu Hua and a whole bunch of famous Chinese writers came to this city, I decided that I definitely should choose it,” Xu said.
Iowa City was also more open to other cultures than many of the students expected.
For example, Xu said she was shocked when Lisa Weaver, her instructor of Journalistic Writing and Reporting spoke Chinese to her.
“Lisa is a veteran reporter who worked in China for more than eight years. She speaks good Peking mandarin,” said Xu.
Mingie Chen, a junior majoring in Graphic Design, said she can find the comfort zone in Iowa City which few American cities offer. She found one of her American classmates in the course of Publication Design putting a poem from Li Bai, a Chinese author, in their final project.
She also was surprised to learn that the Chinese language isn’t only mastered by her professors.
“I was walking on campus one day when some white dude just come up to me and start speaking Chinese,” said Chen.
Although unexpected, Chen said the pleasant encounter helped her to believe she had made the right choice coming to Iowa City.