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Guest Blog: A Tangshan Adventure

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to venture to the booming industrial city of Tangshan in northeastern China. I had the pleasure of presenting to a group of more than 30 high school students about my approach for getting accepted into top-tier U.S. colleges and universities.

Upon my arrival at Hebei Tangshan Foreign Language School, I mistook it for a massive, international business complex. Imagine my surprise to learn that more than 8,000 students make it their home. Introductions with the school director were fairly brief and I was soon moved to a classroom, an environment I assumed I would be more accustomed to.

As I walked into the room, a nervous shiver shot up my spine. Fairly new to public speaking, there I was – exposed – the “Lao Wai” (foreigner) in the room. To my surprise however, I found myself soon relaxing into the talk as I noticed how amazingly engaged my audience was. With each question I asked, hands fired up. Every student was ready and attentive; a few brave souls even dared to ask me direct questions in English.

The drive I saw in these students was humbling. The more time I spent engaging the class, the more clearly their sheer work ethic became apparent. Many of these students, living hundreds of miles away from home spend six days a week, from dawn to well beyond dusk, pouring over their books. As our conversation progressed from “academic rigor” to the newly desired “well-rounded individual,” questions began popping up left and right.

As the worried expressions on their tired faces grew more and more apparent, it started to dawn on me how lucky I have been to have received a well-rounded, Maine state education. The stereotype of the brilliant, book-smart Chinese student is not far off from what I’ve seen in my experiences here in China. Yet I’ve been left to question whether or not this full-proof, tried and true method of remote memorization leads to great accomplishments beyond the “Gao Kao” (Chinese National College Entrance Exam).

The differences between ‘individualized’ American culture and the ‘collective’ thinking of the East have of course been well-documented and are clearly visible in both culture’s education systems. In my travels in China I’ve found that support in making one’s own choices, pursuing one’s own individual interests and carving out a niche for oneself early on are nurturing practices for personal growth rarely witnessed in China.

My experiences lead me to believe the lack of personal development is simply the combined result of centuries of tradition and recently growing competition. With a population of over 1.3 billion, it is no wonder China’s focus on individual growth beyond academics is seldom observed, particularly in a system where the college applicant pool has become so vast and high test scores so crucial.  Yet given the aforementioned stereotype of the “brainy” Chinese students, clearly centuries of tradition and competition does produce its own unique results. In these students I’ve witnessed a rigorous work ethic – each with a drive to better themselves and their families. With this in mind I believe there is still much we in the U.S. can learn from the degree of discipline exhibited in these students.

It is unfortunate that many of these students will struggle with their international college application process due to a lack of opportunity for extra curricular activities, and perhaps an overbearing concentration on academic rigor alone. When I advised them to get involved as much as possible, one student replied, “But we have no time for activities. How will colleges look at this?”

While I tried to console them that colleges and universities take such considerations into account, at the end of the day when all the applications have been read, the school will choose the most qualified applicant. Unfortunately, these students are stuck. Highly selective schools will not change their behavior simply because they do not have to; the supply of elite U.S. schools is much too small to satisfy an ever-growing demand, as shown by recent year’s Ivy league acceptance rates of less than 20%; some less than 10%. But having seen Chinese ambassadors visiting Bowdoin College in the past few years, I believe the wave of changes witnessed since China’s opening in the 70’s has yet to reach its peak.

The value of a liberal arts education is slowly but surely being acknowledged and adopted. Given the market for education in China, I predict as China’s economy continues to grow, more privatized schools focusing on foreign language and extra-curricular activities in addition to their school work (much like private high schools in the U.S.) will continue to quickly develop and spread to second tier cities, breeding the next generation of elite study abroad students and in the long run, globally bridging these two nation’s college applicant pools. This trend has thus far been witnessed in major eastern cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. As second tier cities like Tangshan continue to develop, student like those I met at Hebei Tangshan Foreign Language School may finally get a fair shot at a U.S. education.

To the great minds I met in Tangshan, know I was greatly impressed by your drive and motivation to succeed. I wish you all the best in your applications.-- Eric Ramsay


Eric Ramsay will be a senior at Bowdoin College this fall majoring in Economics with a minor in Chinese. He is proud to call himself a Mainer, raised in Aroostook County, ME where he attended the Maine School of Science and Mathematics (MSSM). He is currently working part time as a recruiting associate/product manager at Red Pagoda Resources, an executive search startup in Beijing. He is also acting as a Maine College Ambassador for the Center for New England China Exchange on behalf of Fox Intercultural Consulting.