As vistas of suburban grocery stores gave way to exurban mansions and then hay farms during a ride to the University of Virginia early one summer morning, George Wu sat on a plush bus seat and faced two dozen students aboard the U-Va. Express.
Nearly all were Chinese, and hardly any had set foot in Virginia before their plane landed at Dulles International Airport a few hours earlier. Wu knew they were nervous. Three years ago, he was in their place — a teenager far from home, unsure of his English, headed to the school in Charlottesville.
“I was shy, not very talkative,” Wu told them. “And then you see how I am talking right now? You can’t get me to shut up. I hope that this happens to you, too.”
These students are joining the fast-growing international population at U.S. colleges. About 690,000 foreign students attended in the 2009-10 school year, up 26 percent from a decade ago. In the same time, the total at the University of Virginia rose 44 percent.
China is the biggest supplier of foreign students, providing 18 percent of the nationwide total, according to the Institute of International Education, although India (15 percent) and South Korea (10 percent) are not far behind. This academic exchange offers U.S. universities a chance to influence a rising generation of global business and political leaders.
Driving the growth are affluent families, many from Asia, who value Western education and can afford to pay full price. U-Va. recruiters in China also find it helps to mention the school’s famous founder, Thomas Jefferson.
These Chinese students have “off-the-charts” test scores, having advanced through fierce competition in high school, said Parke Muth, U-Va.’s director of international admission.
“They crush this place,” he said.
Foreign students pay out-of-state tuition, which is $36,788 for U-Va. undergraduates this year, bringing more cash to the university at a time when state funds cover less and less of its overall budget. They don’t qualify for government aid and usually do not need financial help from universities. Nationally, public and private schools have found recruiting overseas helps their bottom line.
But U-Va. officials said the greatest value of the foreign influx comes from intellectual stimulus. A late-night dorm discussion about the Chinese government’s blockage of Facebook becomes more sophisticated when a student explains what it means to live with the ban. A history class on the Korean War gains insight when a student shares how it was taught in her high school in Seoul or Beijing.
To help the students acclimate, many universities offer mentoring, road trips, Thanksgiving celebrations and social connections with local families. And U-Va. offers a free airport shuttle bus with emcees such as Wu.
The U-Va. Express, as it is known, began five years ago at the suggestion of an alumnus in Singapore. For two days in mid-August, volunteers greeted students with granola bars, orange juice and balloons in the school colors of orange and blue at the Dulles baggage claim area. In Charlottesville, the program helps new arrivals call their parents, take tours and sample fried chicken.
As the first group waited to load oversize suitcases onto the bus, the students chatted with volunteers about their home towns, academic interests and how they chose U-Va.
Tianyun Xue, 18, sounded like she was reading from an admissions brochure as she gushed about a university she had never seen.
“I think it’s a great value school,” said Xue, who is from Suzhou, a major city in the Jiangsu province about an hour west of Shanghai. Her parents didn’t have the same opportunities at her age, she said, so this journey “is like realizing the American dream, in some sense.”
Xue’s bags contained the usual trappings of a new student, plus gifts of chopsticks and Chinese silk for her roommates and host family.
As the last students boarded, Darci Spuck, U-Va.’s assistant director for regional engagement overseas, told them: “There are lots of new friends waiting for you in Charlottesville.”
Many were chatting like old friends. Although there was enough room for each passenger to stretch out on a pair of seats, the students sat bunched together.
At the front, Wu, 22, a fourth-year student, resembled a stand-up comedian as he talked about joining a glee club and touching ancient artifacts during an archaeology class. He also answered some frequently asked questions.
Where do you store your stuff during summer breaks? Chances are you will make friends who will let you stash it in their apartment. “It always works out,” he said.
Can you stay on campus during winter break when most students leave? Yup.
Are there lots of tornados in Virginia? “I have never seen a tornado,” Wu said.
Can you get a 3G smartphone and not sign up for a data plan? (Laughter.) No.
Is there a farm on campus? No, but there’s an organic garden.
Do you have to pick a major right away? No. Unlike in China, you have until the end of your sophomore year to decide. (Wu has a double major in commerce and music.)
Where’s the cheapest place to buy books? Online.
Can you get a part-time job? Yes, but only through the school. “Any job that you get outside of the university is illegal,” he said. “It’s very serious.”
Wu tutored them on quirks in U-Va. rhetoric — such as saying “first-year” instead of “freshman” and “grounds” instead of “campus.”
During the drive, conversations flowed from quiet, timid English to loud, bubbly Chinese. A non-Chinese student sat alone.
“I wish there were more Koreans,” said Eunwon “Ashley” Sung, 21, from Seoul, who is transferring from Northwest Missouri State to study economics or commerce.
This moment sums up a worry of administrators: As more Chinese students enroll and build their own communities, they might miss out on key parts of the American college experience.
“I have to come behind them and say: ‘Quit just speaking Chinese. You didn’t come all this way to clump together,’ ” Muth said.
About six miles outside of town, Wu started to point out landmarks: the Target that lies farther out than the bus runs. The Wal-Mart that’s closer.
“That’s IHOP. They’re open 24 hours,” he said, pointing to the right. On the left: “Taste of China. . . . They say they have the best Chinese food in town.”
Over there was a mall, where Wu said students can buy clothing or gifts. And a Staples, where they could buy school supplies, and a music store, and a Raising Cane’s fried chicken joint.
“And on the right, Chinese all-time favorite: KFC,” he said.
Finally, they reached the grounds. The bright blue sky was dusted with fluffy clouds. They passed tennis courts and gardens and saw the marching band practicing on an athletic field.
The bus pulled into the parking lot of Alumni Hall, where a welcoming crew awaited.
“Okay, guys,” Wu said. “We have arrived.”