When Zipeng "Frank" Jiang arrived in the U.S. for the first time, he was a 16-year-old Chinese honors student with big dreams, limited English skills and no idea how to recover the carry-on bag that the flight crew had taken for last-minute check-in.
"It was my carry-on luggage, so all my important stuff was in it: my ID, a bunch of cash, my laptop," said Jiang, who came here to attend boarding school.
"I basically had my backpack and my saxophone with me. The dorm director picked me up, and he's like, 'Where's your stuff?' and I'm like, 'I lost it.' I'm pretty sure I left a bad first impression."
Jiang's next few months at The King's Academy in rural Seymour, Tenn., were similarly stressful, as he battled homesickness, scrambled to get up to speed on idiomatic English and struggled with everything from fast-food refills to classroom etiquette.
But five years later he's a Northwestern senior with a JPMorgan Chase & Co. internship — and windsurfing lessons — under his belt, strolling confidently across campus in red suede loafers and greeting classmates with waves, hugs and Facebook references.
"I've never regretted for a second that I came here," he said of Northwestern. "I've really enjoyed it."
Jiang is part of a new generation of Chinese students increasingly looking to America for a college education. Facing a shortage of spots at top universities at home and drawn by the prestige of U.S. schools and the opportunity for international experience, 57,000 Chinese undergraduates attended U.S. colleges in 2011, up from 10,000 in 2007.
"Five or 10 years ago, going abroad was considered what dumb rich kids did, and now it's considered what smart middle-class kids do," said Xueqin Jiang, former director of the international division at Peking University High School. "That's a huge shift right now in China."
The trend appears to be accelerating, Xueqin Jiang said, with Chinese students coming to America to prepare for college while in high school or even middle school.
Chinese students said they initially struggle to connect with classmates who speak rapid-fire idiomatic English, listen to different music, watch different TV shows, follow different sports, remember different childhood games and embrace a teen drinking culture that has no Chinese equivalent. Because Americans have trouble with Chinese tonal pronunciations, many newcomers forgo even their given names, adopting English ones during their time here.
"I do miss my name," said Northwestern sophomore Yuqing He, who is known here as Andrea.
But in a half dozen interviews, Chinese students at Northwestern said they've embraced speaking up in class, landed dream internships and taken advantage of research opportunities they wouldn't have had in the test-based Chinese system. Some live off campus and socialize mainly with other Chinese students, but He, an outgoing economics student from Beijing, is a member of the Chi Omega sorority and Jiang, a competitive hip-hop dancer, practices with the Electric Funketeers dance crew in Chicago.
That kind of adaptability and initiative is typical of the Chinese students who come here, said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the nonprofit Institute of International Education, which tracks international enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities.
"These are extraordinary kids," she said. "Taking the risk of studying outside the culture has weeded out the ordinary kids. They bring something very special: a willingness to be out there and live a little bit dangerously and experimentally, and they do thrive."
There is a potential for problems, experts say. In the cash-strapped University of California system, some parents have alleged that Chinese students, who are not eligible for financial aid and typically pay full tuition, are being chosen over qualified Americans. And experts acknowledge that schools may see a financial incentive to accept less adventurous and accomplished Chinese students who are ill-equipped for study abroad but can pay full tuition, which can come to more than $30,000 a year at some private schools.
"I think it's a calculation that U.S. universities and colleges are now grappling with: There's a short-term gain, perhaps, in taking students that aren't going to thrive, but a very big long-term risk," said Blumenthal, pointing out that if students have a miserable experience at a particular U.S. school, they will tell their friends and relatives and the school's reputation will plummet.
Northwestern has one of the largest and most established Chinese undergraduate populations in the Chicago area, with about 132 undergraduates from China attending, according to data supplied by the university. The University of Chicago has 101 undergraduates from China, up from 38 in the fall of 2007, according to the university. The University of Illinois at Chicago had 18 Chinese undergraduates last year, up from 11 in 2002, according to a representative.
The growth has been especially explosive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which has 2,112 undergraduates from China, up from 93 in the fall of 2007, according to the university.
This year Northwestern had 55 entering freshmen from China, up from 21 in the fall of 2008, according to associate provost Mike Mills. The school's Chinese students are doing very well academically, and are well represented among the top 12 percent of their classes, Mills said via email.
Many Chinese students hope to work in the U.S. for two or three years after college before returning to China, according to Xuezhou "Jodie" Zong, vice president of the Chinese International Student Association at Northwestern.
Growing up in Shenzhen, a bustling coastal city of 10 million not far from Hong Kong, Frank Jiang played video games, honed his street-dancing skills and excelled academically. He landed a spot in the best high school in the city, where he was a student leader, organizing festivals and other activities for his 150-student "unit" in a class of 1,000.
He loved his high school, he said, and he was on track to go to a very good university, but he thought he'd get more out of a U.S. education.
"We don't have YouTube" in China, he said, referring to a government ban. "We don't have Facebook. There are always way to get around those barriers, but, in general, it's kind of isolated. Different countries are more connected so I thought it would be good to have an international perspective."
His father, a lawyer, and his mother, who works at a bank, agreed, and began researching private U.S. high schools where Jiang could prepare for college. They chose The King's Academy, a small Christian school, because they thought it would be safer than a school in a big city.
Jiang, now 21, with spiky hair, black-framed eyeglasses and an earring, shakes his head and cringes a little when he recalls what Chinese students affectionately refer to as "fob," or fresh off the boat, moments of awkwardness.
"There were a lot of fobby moments that kind of dragged me down," he said of his first months in Tennessee.
Early on, he raised his hand in class and asked for permission to go to the restroom, something that just wasn't done at his high school. ("If you want to go, just go," the teacher said.) He had no idea what a refill was and would order a second large drink at a fast-food restaurant. Not understanding that the price advertised at the mall salad bar was per pound and not all you can eat, he ended up paying $20 for lunch.
But his father's advice helped him tremendously, he said. Have a plan, his father said, break it into manageable parts, execute it faithfully and keep your priorities straight. When Jiang was studying for the SAT and his new friends invited him to a football game or to hang out at the mall, the plan helped him say no.
"It's important for you to have your set of values and stick to them," Jiang says.
Standing on a busy corner of campus, pink smartphone in hand, 19-year-old Andrea He looks every bit the Northwestern student, complete with a school T-shirt, matching purple Adidas tennis shoes and a casual upswept ponytail. She came here, in part, for the flexibility of a Western education, she says; the Chinese university system tends to be more rigid and test based.
"It's very hard to change your major (in China)," said He, who is majoring in economics and mathematical methods in the social sciences. "It's very hard to get a dual degree. It's very hard to get a double major. It's very hard to get into a class you'd really love. You will waste a lot of time doing things you don't like, and I don't want to do that. I want my life in my late teens and early 20s to be meaningful."
When she came to Northwestern, speaking up in class was foreign to her and she was afraid people would laugh at her English. But when she did begin to participate, she said, other students were supportive and she grew more confident.
"I found out, I can speak in better sentences," she said. "It's not that bad. It can be awkward, I may stop in the middle of a sentence and not know how to express something, but people will help me and that's a pretty good process."
Now, she said, she prefers classes with opportunities for discussion: "I kind of like it when there's no answer to the question, because it's really open-ended and I can say whatever I want to say."
Jiang, an industrial engineering and economics major, has virtually inhaled America, playing saxophone in a church orchestra, attending frat parties and entering dance competitions in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. Like many of his Chinese classmates, he hopes to work in the U.S. for a few years after college, so he's juggling academics, extracurricular activities and a job search.
When the pressure gets intense, he said, he takes a walk on the shore of Lake Michigan to clear his head.
But even in this quiet place of refuge, he continues to think big. When he came to the lakefront to steady himself before summer internship interviews, he said, he looked out across the emerald water at the bright towers of Chicago's downtown.
"That's where I want to go," he said to himself.