COLUMBIA — Lu Tian was a psychology student at Beijing Normal University when she met a visiting MU researcher, Puncky Heppner.
Heppner sold her on the strength of the counseling psychology program at MU.
One year later, Tian was enrolled as a doctoral student at MU, with Heppner as her adviser.
Tian is one of the record number of Chinese students attending the university this fall. Enrollment from China jumped from 198 students in 1999 to 379 in 2007, making Chinese students the largest international contingent on campus, according to information on the MU registrar's Web site.
Neither Korea nor India, which round out the top three feeder countries to MU, has seen anywhere near the consistent enrollment growth of students from China.
There were a record number of 400 Chinese undergraduate applications to the university this fall, the MU Office of Admissions reported..
Mary Jo Herde, who is on staff at the university's Asian Affairs Center, attributed the growing number of Chinese students at MU to the economic development of China.
"Things are changing in China," Herde said. The Chinese have always highly valued education, she explained, but now more families can afford to send children abroad for school.
International students must demonstrate sufficient funds to cover a year of tuition and expenses before being admitted to the university.
Herde described China as "straddling socialism and capitalism." As markets in China continue to open up, she said, there's a growing desire for a more cosmopolitan population.
She predicts that worldliness and English fluency will continue to become more important in China, particularly for young people entering the workplace.
Becky Brandt, associate director of admissions for MU, agreed that the changing economics of China contributed to this fall's record number of Chinese applicants.
In her 24 years of international admissions experience, Brandt has seen a correlation between the economic development of a country and the types of programs at MU to which its students apply.
She explained that students from developing countries often study agriculture, while rapidly growing countries tend to send their students to engineering programs.
Now, she said, many Chinese students apply to business programs. In fact, according to the MU registrar's Web site, business was the most popular graduate program for Chinese students in 2007. For undergraduate students, business and pre-journalism tied as the major of choice.
Brandt credits the network of MU alumni living in China for spreading the word about the university abroad. Although many international students strive for the Ivy League or schools on the East and West coasts, Brandt said Columbia provides a great learning environment and a true small-town American experience.
Anson Li, a senior business major from Hong Kong, has found Columbia to be a comfortable fit.
"It's good for studying, and I think it's friendlier than big cities," he said.
Li is president of the Chinese Business Student Association at MU. The group hosts a combination of social, professional and educational events to help Chinese students acclimate to the United States.
There is a lot for Chinese students to adjust to here. Yu Bi, who is studying for her master's degree in counseling psychology at MU, said she had some "culture shock" and confusion upon arriving in Columbia from Beijing just a few months ago.
"When people are sneezing and someone says, ‘God bless you!' I think, ‘Why are they saying that?'" she said, laughing.
Seeing how Columbia residents and MU students view her home country can be frustrating, she said.
"It's good to hear another voice," Bi said, adding that she is keen to see her country as outsiders see it. But she perceives many inaccuracies in how the Western press portrays China.
"The China in the American media is not the China that I know," she said.
Heppner, the visiting MU researcher, laughed when asked about cultural differences that emerge when there are international students in his classes.
"There are about 5 million," he said.
Brandt, MU's associate director of admissions, describes those kinds of exchanges as invaluable.
International students "bring a wealth of cultural experience and depth to our campus," she said. "They bring knowledge and understanding between cultures."
Anson Li's hope is that more Americans will learn Chinese.
"When you study a language, you have a connection with the culture," he said. Li explained that learning English has given him a more nuanced understanding of the United States, as well as of where he comes from.
"As I started learning about American culture, it helped me understand my own culture," he said.