Chinese students a growing presence at MICA

Art college is one of many U.S. institutions experiencing an influx of applications from China

  • Maryland Institute College of Art professor Alessandra Torres, left, visits the Great Wall of China with an unidentified friend during a recruiting tour.
Maryland Institute College of Art professor Alessandra Torres,…
May 24, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Far from clinging to their daughter, Rose He's parents urged her to pursue an art degree 7,500 miles from home. Like many Chinese families, they thought an American diploma could lead to a better job.

He, a Shanghai native, could not be happier with her decision to enroll at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "In China, you keep drawing and drawing, but you don't have your own ideas," she says.

She recently exchanged emails with a prospective applicant from Beijing. "I told her how great it is, how different it is from China," He says. "I said, 'If you really want to learn something, you should come to MICA.'"

The message seems to be resounding.

MICA received 147 undergraduate and graduate applications from China for fall 2011, up from 31 in 2007. Chinese students accounted for 34 percent of all international applications, up from 15 percent in 2007.

"They began exponentially increasing without us doing anything in terms of recruiting," says Theresa Bedoya, MICA's vice president for admissions and financial aid. "We are suddenly very much on their radar."

In recognition of the surging interest, MICA sent an admissions counselor to recruit in China for the first time this spring, and subsequent trips are in the works. "We felt we needed to reach out and make a real connection," Bedoya says. "We think we'll get better candidates that way."

The University of Maryland Baltimore County's director of admissions also made his first trip to the country in December. An admissions counselor from Goucher College was on the same recruiting trip this spring as MICA professor Alessandra Torres. Wallace Loh, a Chinese native and president of the University of Maryland, College Park, will venture to his homeland this summer with Gov. Martin O'Malley. Loh wants his school's basketball teams to play in China as ambassadors.

Nearly 130,000 Chinese students studied at American colleges and universities during the 2009-2010 academic year, up 29.9 percent from the previous year, and it's more than double the number who studied here 10 years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education. China is the leading exporter of students to American colleges and universities.

"I think U.S. institutions are very excited about this trend," says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president for the Institute of International Education.

Chinese students come exceptionally well-prepared and often able to pay the full cost of tuition, she says. They also add coveted diversity, providing American students with a head start in understanding the world's newest economic powerhouse.

"American careers are going to be global," Blumenthal says. "And there is no doubt that our students are going to end up dealing with China. So it's great to have a Chinese roommate or a Chinese lab partner."

MICA officials want students to see their work in a global context, feeling they can't be relevant artists any other way. And reckoning with the 21st-century landscape inevitably means reckoning with China, which has the world's largest population and second-largest economy.

The college first hosted a delegation from a Chinese art school in the late 1990s, and Provost Ray Allen made his first trip to China shortly afterward.

Allen encountered a culture where art instructors felt confident in their ability to teach technical skills but less sure about how to unlock student creativity. "They wanted to know how our students could produce such original and diverse outcomes," he says.

Allen quickly decided that China could become an important market for MICA.

The mutual interest has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2007, Allen toured China's leading art academies with MICA President Fred Lazarus IV. Each of the last two years, MICA has hosted three touring delegations from Chinese art schools. This spring, MICA sent Torres to four Chinese cities, not only to solicit applications but to advise students on how to prepare better portfolios.

The college is also working to create a master's program for art teachers from around the world who would come to Baltimore to share best practices and return to their native countries with new instructional strategies.

As a result of such efforts, many more Chinese high schools seem to be training students to matriculate to American colleges.

Highly ranked schools such as MICA hold particular allure for a country that ranks its own schools quite rigidly.

Chinese students cite several reasons for their attraction to American colleges. For one, admission to a top school does not depend entirely on a single, high-pressure exam, as it does in China. Many Chinese parents also regard American education as a sure ticket to a good job. Finally, students see American universities as a place to embrace creativity and self-expression.

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