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Book Reviews

Yingyi Ma. Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2020. 312p. Paper, $35.00 (ISBN 978-0231184588).

Book cover for Ambitious and Anxious

Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education by Yingyi Ma challenges the monolithic image of Chinese international students at US colleges. Ma, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Syracuse University, attained her bachelor’s degree in China and came to the United States as a fully funded graduate student. She contrasts her background with the new generation of Chinese students in the United States who are mostly self-funded and are more likely to be undergraduate students.

Ambitious and Anxious informs this population’s heterogeneous realities. For example, it includes stories of Chinese international students whose families had to sell their houses to fund their college education in the United States, as well as privileged students whose parents are college educated and wealthy. Some of them are fluent in English, while others struggle at communicating in English. The book also touches on the impact of the growing Chinese economy and US colleges’ financial dependence on out-of-state and international students, which provides helpful context for these students’ experiences.

The purpose of the book is to explore and analyze the experiences of recent Chinese undergraduates in the United States, focusing on “the duality of ambition and anxiety” (7) manifested through their experiences. They are ambitious about getting into highly ranked colleges, gaining global perspectives, choosing the right major, benefiting from both US and Chinese education, and increasing cultural flexibility and social mobility. At the same time, they are anxious about navigating the US college admissions process, making American friends, balancing their pragmatic values with varied American values, getting used to academic norms in the United States, preserving family wealth in China, and surviving the challenging immigration environment in the United States. The book describes Chinese undergraduate students’ experiences over three stages: before their arrival in the United States, while attending US colleges, and after graduation. It focuses on full-time undergraduates at four-year colleges and features students who were born in the 1990s.

Ma uses both quantitative and qualitative data sources for her analysis. The sources she employed for macro-level quantitative data include the Chinese Ministry of Education, the Institute of International Education, and the US National Science Foundation. For individual students’ data and narratives, she used three different methods: 1) an online survey to gather data on demographics, social networks, academic records, and their plans after graduation, with responses from 507 participants from 50 colleges; 2) one-on-one interviews with 65 Chinese college students in the United States; and 3) fieldwork in eight public high schools and one private high school in China.

Ma’s analysis is balanced and nuanced. In chapter 1, Ma uses individual students’ stories and supporting data to describe their ambition and anxiety. For example, although the majority of these students are paying full tuition, some started college in China and transferred to reduce the financial burden on their parents. They are singletons due to China’s one-child policy, which existed in the 90s, and are under high expectations from their parents. In chapter 2, Ma shows that studying abroad serves as an alternative to the Gaokao, the highly competitive national college entrance examination in China, and liberates students from the test-oriented Chinese education system. Ma’s study finds that students rely on rankings, agents, and parental networks to choose colleges.

Chapter 3 describes different pathways Chinese international students reach US colleges, presents the role of for-profit agencies, and explains how the cost of tuition stratifies their pathways. Ma finds that parental education and students’ English proficiency affect college placement in the United States and that first-generation college students are less likely to attend selective institutions. Chapter 4 shows that these students believe that US education cultivates creativity and critical thinking while Chinese education cultivates perseverance and persistence. They are motivated to benefit from both education systems, although they feel anxious about negative profiling, stereotyping, and academic integrity accusations by their peers.

Chapter 5 examines the lack of social integration of Chinese students at US colleges and discusses the rationales for their voluntary protective segregation. These students avoid party culture and try to protect themselves from neo-racism. Ma finds that participation in campus organizations helps boost friendships between Chinese and American students. Chapter 6 explains why Chinese students tend to choose STEM and business majors at US colleges. Ma argues that pragmatic collectivism, as well as language and cultural barriers, plays a role in Chinese students’ decisions. Chapter 7 examines Chinese international students’ classroom behaviors and describes their challenges associated with the language barrier and cultural differences.

Chapters 8 and 9 reflect on the changes in Chinese international students’ lives after studying in the United States and debunk the myth that they come to the United States to study and migrate. Chapter 10 summarizes the findings and presents implications. Ma suggests that US colleges proactively reach out to Chinese international students so that they can avoid solely relying on ranking data and for-profit agents. She also emphasizes the importance of robust orientation programs and student services and advocates for expanded career services.

The strengths of this book include the use of rigorous mixed methods, using both quantitative and qualitative data. Additionally, Ma not only discusses trends but also shares counternarratives to demonstrate the heterogeneity of the population. The challenges include the fact that this book does not discuss Chinese international students’ mental health issues or gender inequality in detail.

As the number of Chinese international students in the United States continues to grow, librarians at US academic libraries will find this book valuable in understanding and supporting their needs. Additionally, US college administrators will find this book useful in recruiting Chinese international students more effectively. This book sheds light on the realities of Chinese international students’ heterogeneous community and masterfully exposes the gaps in educational opportunities for this population in US colleges.—Mihoko Hosoi, The Pennsylvania State University

Copyright Mihoko Hosoi


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