TEMPE – Summer in Phoenix made Weihan Chu feel dizzy as he came off of the plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport three years ago.
He was thankful volunteers of Arizona State University’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association were there to greet him so he didn’t have to wait outside in the triple-digit swelter.
“The deepest impression (was) just hot,” he said.
Chu, 23, is in his final semester as an international student at ASU. He is vice president of CSSA, a student organization that helps incoming Chinese students adjust to American life, including picking them up from the airport, organizing outings and holding events.
Chu is just one of thousands of Chinese students who come to Arizona each year. With more than 23,000 international students, the state ranks 12th in the country, and more that 35 percent of those students are from China.
ASU is the top choice for international students in the Grand Canyon State, with nearly 13,500 international students on its Tempe campus. Chinese students are the highest international student population at ASU, as well as in universities across the country, with more 363,000 Chinese students nationally.
Strict internet restrictions and the vastness of China make the feat of recruiting Chinese students to Arizona a challenge, but it pays off. International students have brought over $717 million to Arizona’s higher education institutions and have supported more than 9,000 jobs, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Climbing the firewall
To find ways to reach and connect with students, U.S. universities navigated such challenges as the Great Firewall of China, which blocks Google, YouTube, Facebook and most other Western social media.
“We do a lot to target to China specifically that is really unique compared to the rest of the population,” said Brianna Prime, international communications manager for ASU Enrollment Services Communications. “The most unique mediums that we use to talk to Chinese students are Chinese social channels.”
ASU utilizes Chinese social media, such as WeChat and Weibo, to connect with students still in China. WeChat, one of China’s most popular social media platforms, allows users to chat, share, create groups and even transfer money. Weibo is similar to Twitter, Prime said.
Because a WeChat account can’t be hosted in the U.S., she said, ASU has a partnership with Grok, a hosting company in China. ASU creates the content and Grok posts it.
ASU also recently hired a Chinese-specific coordinator. As a native of China, the coordinator’s expertise is expected to offer insights into the type of media that would reach Chinese students.
“There are so many additional and unique things that we need to do for (China),” Prime said. “It’s like you have to do the same amount of work in a completely different medium, in multiple mediums.”
Prime said her office will share content from the university, ASU Now and Cronkite News. Content shared on a Chinese platform will be translated into Mandarin but will link to the original content. ASU also has web pages fully in Mandarin for students.
“We try to translate, too, as much as possible because we know how important family plays into a student’s decision into going to college, especially with international families,” Prime said. “They are a little more integrated into that process.”
She said it’s common for students to pursue higher education outside China. More than 608,000 Chinese students pursued advanced studies overseas in 2017.
Students typically work with agents to help decide which university to attend. ASU has a partnership with Kaplan, which formalizes relationships with agents in China by providing them information about the university so they can recruit for ASU.
The university also has employees in China who go all over the country to meet with partners and attend college fairs. During peak recruitment season in the fall, ASU will send more staff out to help with recruitment.
ASU also targets its audience by purchasing lists from different organizations of students who recently completed the TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language. This test is necessary for all international students, and the purchased lists contain students from all over the world.
In addition, the university relies on word of mouth between families and students. Prime said having families visit and seeing the university will encourage them to speak about ASU and give recommendations.
Haolin Du, a member of CSSA who’s studying urban planning, said he initially did some internet research on American universities and asked advice from his father, an urban planner, and his father’s friends.
Chu learned about ASU through friends in Boston, where he spent a year learning English before coming to Arizona.
“I’d been talking to some of my friends in Boston, so I know some students who were going to ASU, some to Ohio State, some Oregon, some Michigan,” Chu said. “Most of my information … was given from my friends, from someone that I know.”
Chu said a friend who was attending ASU was “90 percent” of the reason why he decided to attend the university.
School and state come together
The Arizona Office of Tourism has been working with Arizona universities, in hopes students will encourage their families and friends to visit them in Arizona. Programs are being developed specifically for Chinese students, such as a WeChat photo contest and incoming freshman familiarization trips in fall 2019, to help expose students to more of Arizona, Kimberly Todd, international senior media relations manager for the tourism office, said in an email.
The office also has worked with Chinese student associations on ASU’s and Northern Arizona University’s campus by attending events and giving away travel information in Chinese.
“Last year for the Chinese New Year, we had activities to celebrate the spring new year,” said Yi Wu, president of the CSSA at Northern Arizona. “(The Arizona Office of Tourism) provided us with awards, travel to the Grand Canyon and trips you could take.”
More than 81,000 Chinese visited Arizona in 2017, and the number of tourists from China has increased 224 percent since 2011. Only Mexico and Canada rank higher than China in terms of tourists.
Chinese travelers flock to Arizona because of China’s growing middle class and Arizona’s natural scenic sights, including the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley, said Scott Dunn, senior director of content and communications at the Arizona Office of Tourism.
“China is our fastest growing international market, and it has been for the past several years,” Dunn said. “We’ve seen visitation from China grow every year since we’ve been tracking it, and it is inevitable that China is going to become Arizona’s Number 1 source of overseas visitors.”
According to the Arizona Office of Tourism, 79 percent of Chinese tourists come to Arizona for leisure, 25 percent of that being to visit friends and family. Around 16 percent of leisure travelers are here for education, which Dunn said is most likely students studying at Arizona universities.
Staying in Arizona
Dunn said it’s important to have international students not just for the diversity on campus, but for the possibilities that could follow their stay in Arizona. If someone were to study in Arizona and stay, it’s beneficial to the tax base and economy, and entrepreneurs tend to be visitors before they start a business in Arizona, Dunn said.
“You’re a Chinese student who’s spent four years or more at Arizona State University or U of A or NAU,” Dunn said. “You’ve made Arizona your home for those four years and there’s a chance that you might stay, there’s a chance that you might bring your family over, there’s a chance that you might find a job or start a business.”
Chu, who is graduating in December, said he knows of students who have stayed in Arizona following graduation, but most have gone elsewhere or returned to China. Though Chu plans to attend graduate school on the East Coast, he plans to show his family around Arizona when they visit for graduation.
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