Chinese students at the University of Illinois take part in a Football 101 event that explains the ins and outs of American football to international students interested in learning about the sport. Image: Elizabeth Redden, University of Illinois.

University of Illinois Adapts to Make Chinese Students Feel at Home


Numbering over 5,000, Chinese students at the University of Illinois make up half of the school’s international student population and 12% of the overall student population. As a result, the university and surrounding campus are evolving to meet the needs of Chinese students, from hiring Chinese-speaking employees at campus banks to opening the first US outlet of a South Korean coffee chain that is very popular in China, Caffe Bene, providing Chinese and other Asian students with a taste of home. One restaurant in Illinois’ Campustown, Lai Lai Wok, has English menus only upon request as over half of its customers are Chinese, whereas just a few years ago they were predominantly American and Korean.

On big part of American college life is the fall football season. American football has become increasingly popular among Chinese audiences, with the share of Chinese expressing an interest in the sport jumping to from 2 to 8% in the past year alone. China even has its own full-contact American football leagues, one of which kicked off its third season in August. However, even for fans with a strong command of English, keeping track of player stats, plays, and rules can be confusing. This season, two students at the University of Illinois, Liaohan “David” He and Yekai “Bruce” Lu, have set out to make it easier for their fellow Chinese football enthusiasts by broadcasting University of Illinois football games in Mandarin. In doing so they hope that it will provide opportunities for Chinese students to interact more with other students and feel more included in American culture.

Recent influxes of Chinese students aside, the University of Illinois has enjoyed a strong relationship with China for over 100 years. In the early 1900s University of Illinois President Edmund James was at the forefront of encouraging Chinese students to study in the United States. He persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to create the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program from the reparations paid to the United States by China following the 1901 Boxer Rebellion to support Chinese students. As a result, many Chinese students attended the University of Illinois, and the trend was repeated in the 1970s following the end of the Cultural Revolution since the school was well-known in China. Famous Chinese alumni include Tsin Chuang, who went on to design Tsinghua University and modeled many of the buildings after his alma mater. Today, the University of Illinois enjoys 80 partnerships with China in a variety of fields.

Sarah Wang is a Project Assistant and the Event Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.