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    Why a Western Education Is Still as Valuable as Ever

    Chinese commentators who deride overseas study as too expensive know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    Earlier this month, local media in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou published a series of reports on studying abroad. One article, about how a family sold their home to give their daughter — a student at a top Hangzhou high school — a chance to go to college abroad, sparked a debate over the value of going overseas for an education. In total, the girl’s family spent 2 million yuan ($300,000) funding her studies. Upon graduating and returning to China, however, she ended up with a job that paid just 5,000 yuan a month.

    The debate over the value of overseas study is not new. In April, the Guangzhou Daily published a similar article under the somewhat sensational title: “It Costs 4 Million Yuan to Study Abroad, But How Long Will It Take to Pay Off?” Enter the Chinese words for “study abroad” and “worthwhile” into Baidu, the country’s largest search engine, and more than 2.5 million results appear.

    Obviously, there is no single standard by which a person’s overseas study experience can be judged. And yet the Chinese public repeatedly allows itself to be drawn into debates on this very topic. Those who say it isn’t worthwhile all echo the same refrain: The costs associated with studying abroad are wildly out of proportion to the salaries students can expect to receive upon their return home. Put another way, Chinese parents have wildly unrealistic expectations for their investment in their children’s education.

    Currently, an average of between 400,000 and 500,000 Chinese students study abroad every year, and their decision to do so has long since ceased to raise eyebrows. However, everyone has different reasons for going abroad. Some go for the diploma, others for a more holistic learning experience, and still more in hopes of emigrating.

    More than half of students who study abroad consult with a middleman before making their decision. These middlemen present prospective study abroad students with reams of data, telling them they will soon be living in a globalized world and that their experiences overseas will make them more competitive in the future. Their aim is to paint as rosy a picture as possible, and they are constantly inflating students’ expectations. In reality, many of these people have no idea what it means to be globalized, or what education is really about.

    Is there another way to approach overseas study or at least adopt more realistic expectations for it? Personally, I feel very fortunate that my parents funded my studies in the United States, because what I found there lived up to my every expectation. I remember when I first arrived in the country — everything I saw there amazed me. Studying abroad let me see firsthand what it truly means to be civilized.

    Walking down the street, people went out of their way to greet me. Crossing the road, cars stopped for pedestrians. Mature students, so rare in China, were a common sight on campus. People with disabilities had few problems getting around. In the supermarket, cashiers would replace defective goods of their own accord. School bathrooms were kept clean. Teachers gave detailed feedback on homework, going through assignments sentence by sentence. Most local government functions were open to the public, and even foreigners could stop by and listen to finance officials go over budget reports.

    In the U.S., I had the chance to speak to internationally renowned historians, sociologists, and scientists. I soon realized they led otherwise completely ordinary lives and were as concerned with the same basic day-to-day necessities as anyone else. What set them apart was their ability to spend every day immersed in their fields of study. Never allowing themselves to be distracted, they were devoted to the work they loved. Their lives followed a constant rhythm of setting new goals and working to meet them.

    Even if they won an award, they were never put on a pedestal. They kept to the same schedule as before, teaching two to three classes a week, reading piles of academic papers, working with an array of research equipment, and writing reams of notes. To them, the much vaunted international stage was just 20 to 30 people gathered around a few tables, talking about important issues in their respective fields.

    Of course, some may say that all these are just minor details, but aren’t details the basis of civilization? Everything I saw abroad I had read about in books before leaving China; yet the experience of seeing them firsthand still touched me to my core. I believe studying abroad is a chance to try another way of living. It is an opportunity to experience life in a free environment and find goals worth striving for, even if these goals may seem boring to others.

    The question we should be asking isn’t whether studying abroad is worth it; it’s why we’re studying abroad in the first place. In this sense, I believe spending a few hundred thousand yuan to study in another country is extremely worthwhile, if you can afford it. In fact, given the value of experiencing other cultures firsthand, I’d go so far as to call it a bargain.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Young Chinese people visit a study abroad fair in Beijing, Oct. 22, 2016. VCG)