Popular Dual Degree Program Brings Many Chinese Students to Mason

By Buzz McClain

One of the things Mason senior Zhichao “Frank” Cong noticed immediately on his arrival on the Mason campus from Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China, was the remarkable diversity of the student population.

“Mason is much more diversified than where I go to school in China,” says Cong who is majoring in finance. “I really like it here. I learn a lot about different cultures, about African American and other cultures. And I have a lot of new friends here.”

Mason senior Zhichao “Frank” Cong is one of 107 Chinese students attending Mason as part of the popular U.S.-China Undergraduate Transfer Program. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

But Cong won’t complete his degree at Mason. Instead, he will return home to China and finish his undergraduate career at Shaanxi Normal. Cong is one of 107 Chinese students at Mason who participate in the increasingly popular U.S.-China Undergraduate Transfer Program, formerly called the 1+2+1 Dual Degree program. The name was changed this year to reflect the fact that many students stay in the United States longer than two years to finish their U.S. university requirements, before  going back to spend their final year of the program in China.

“Actually, many of the students are here longer than the two years,” says Madelyn C. Ross, the director of China Initiatives for Mason’s Office of Global and International Strategies. “They’re here for two-and-a-half, three, or even four years, and many of them return to the United States for grad school after they finish the program in China.”

Including Haoxiao Yu, the finance major who presented this year’s valedictory speech at the program’s graduation ceremony in China. Now that she’s completed her final year in China, she’s returned to the United States and studies in the master’s program at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Others have returned to pursue graduate degrees from Cornell University, Columbia University,  Johns Hopkins University, Mason, and more.

From left, Mason students Xiaoxiao Zhang and Xiaohan Li work with Madelyn Ross, Mason’s director of China Initiatives, and the program coordinator Diane Wang. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason is one of 15 U.S. schools that participate in the 1+2+1 program, but, says Ross, “Mason is annually in very high demand. Students like our reputation and our global diversity, including the fact that there are 300 other students on campus with Chinese passports. They also like that we’re close to Washington.”

With the 43 new arrivals this semester, there are now 107 China 1+2+1 students living in residence halls “to get the full Mason experience,” says Ross.

The program began in 2004 with agreements among Mason and five Chinese universities. The first 16 students arrived in August 2005, but the numbers expanded rapidly. Since 2005, more than 260 1+2+1 students have studied at Mason.

Some of the Chinese students from the dual degree program meet and socialize outside of Starbucks on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“There are 85 China universities participating in the program, and we accept students from only 20,” says Ross. “Every year more schools ask to send students to Mason. It’s raised our profile among a large number of China universities.”

This June, 45 Mason students received their degrees at the annual graduation ceremony in China.

The students, most of whom have a firm command of English and polish it with a semester or two at Mason’s English Language Institute, are motivated by the chance to learn at Mason, and once they get here, they don’t often let up. In fact, when they discover the opportunities available to them, they flourish.

“What sets the program apart is we draw the top academic students who are also very engaged on campus,” says Ross.

To make Mason feel more like home, finance major Danjing Shen (right) and her roommates ride the CUE Bus to Asian supermarkets in the area and then cook their favorite dishes in their dorm kitchens. Photo by Creative Services.

Cong says he joined “a lot of organizations” while at Mason. “I tried to make a difference. I was encouraged to do an internship and develop my leadership.”

Cong became treasurer of Phi Kappa Phi Business Honor Society, joined the Undergraduate English Society, and was an intern at the nonprofit Freedom House in Washington, D.C., which advocates for democracy and human rights around the world.

Academic awards for program students abound, from winning essay-writing awards to achievement awards in computer science to taking home honor society titles for top GPA scores. Most of the students are also on the dean’s list each semester they spend at Mason. And for the first time, a program student, economics major Nao Ma, won a full sports scholarship from Mason’s track and field team.

Other students pay their own way, something more Chinese citizens can afford to do given the country’s emerging prosperity in the global market. “In China, the number of students who can afford to attend college in the United States is skyrocketing, although it’s still a stretch for a middle-class family,” says Ross.

Most of the program participants major in economics and finance at Mason, but they can choose from a dozen majors offered in the program. New majors are added based on departmental interest and student demand. Electrical engineering is a new option this year, and environmental science was added last year.

If there is a downside to China 1+2+1, it’s that the visit to Mason is temporary.

“We don’t have a gym in China, but here I can go to the gym everyday to workout or play basketball with my friends. I feel like this campus makes the student’s life much better,” says Cong. “Campus life is really colorful, there are so many events on campus every day, and there are so many services for students, like counselors, advisors, and career services.

“I really want to stay here for a while,” says Cong. “I really love living here.”

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