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Ma’s book analyzes Chinese student experiences in U.S. higher ed

Dec 31, 2020

Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese Undergraduates Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education

Yingyi Ma, associate professor of sociology, has written Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, recently published by Columbia University Press. In the book, Ma discusses both the struggles and successes of Chinese international students within the U.S. higher education system.

Drawn from research conducted in both Chinese high schools and U.S. colleges and universities, Ambitious and Anxious details the struggles these students face while navigating two drastically different education systems and broader societies. (Between 2005 and 2015, Chinese enrollment in U.S. undergraduate institutions rose from 10,000 to more than 135,000 students.) Ma provides a multi-faceted analysis of contradictions and complexities faced by these students, who represent a relatively privileged population, and sheds light on their class-based experiences. Rather than simply expecting international students to adapt to the United States, Ma’s book shifts the focus, bringing China — and, in particular, transformative social change in China — into the picture. That social change, Ma argues, creates a duality of ambition and anxiety that helps shape students’ experiences. They and their families have the ambition to navigate different educational systems and societies; and yet the intricacy and pressure of these systems generate a great deal of anxiety (e.g., applying to colleges before arriving, studying and socializing on campus, and to looking ahead upon graduation). Ambitious and Anxious also considers policy implications for American colleges and universities, including recruitment, student experiences, faculty support, and career services. Ma’s book has been called “eye-opening, provocative, and replete with original details” by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

Ma, who directs Maxwell’s Asian/Asian American Studies program, researches how students come to study certain subjects and not others, and the labor-market consequences of these educational choices. She has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred Sloan Foundation, and the Association of Institutional Research. Ma has published work in various journals, such as The Review of Higher Education and Social Science Quarterly. She previously co-edited Understanding International Students from Asia in American Universities, which received an honorable mention for the Best Book Award from the Study Abroad and International Students Section of the Comparative and International Education Association.

You can find more information about Ma’s new book on the publisher’s website.

Publisher's Summary:

Over the past decade, a wave of Chinese international undergraduate students—mostly self-funded—has swept across American higher education. From 2005 to 2015, undergraduate enrollment from China rose from under 10,000 to over 135,000. This privileged yet diverse group of young people from a changing China must navigate the complications and confusions of their formative years while bridging the two most powerful countries in the world. How do these students come to study in the United States? What does this experience mean to them? What does American higher education need to know and do in order to continue attracting these students and to provide sufficient support for them?

In "Ambitious and Anxious," the sociologist Yingyi Ma offers a multifaceted analysis of this new wave of Chinese students based on research in both Chinese high schools and American higher-education institutions. Ma argues that these students’ experiences embody the duality of ambition and anxiety that arises from transformative social changes in China. These students and their families have the ambition to navigate two very different educational systems and societies. Yet the intricacy and pressure of these systems generate a great deal of anxiety, from applying to colleges before arriving, to studying and socializing on campus, and to looking ahead upon graduation.

"Ambitious and Anxious" also considers policy implications for American colleges and universities, including recruitment, student experiences, faculty support, and career services.

Center for Policy Research
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