Chinese Student Groups at UC Berkeley: What America Means for an International Chinese Student

Image: new student send-off in China. Photo by BCSSA.


This essay provides a quick view of how organizations that engage Chinese students at UC Berkeley fit into the students' experience in America. With research on different organizations and two interviews with organization leaders, I find not only that the student groups play an essential role in the Chinese students' celebration of their identities, but also that the student organizations themselves are performances which reveal the Chinese students' desire and struggle in America.

Image: students on bus to IKEA. Photo by BCSSA.

So, Why Student Groups?

Among the international communities at UC Berkeley, that of Chinese students are especially eager to build and/or participate in Chinese student organizations, many of which state professional and/or academic development as their purpose. It is an interesting phenomenon to study because running professional organizations takes enormous amount of time and effort.

The primary question this essay seeks to answer is: why do international Chinese students form their own professional student groups? Specifically, what are some of the advantages of Chinese professional student groups over existing options that Chinese students especially value? What can we learn about the international Chinese students' desires and struggles in America through the student groups? I will leverage my own experience and access to first-hand resources, as well as interviews with leaders of the international Chinese community, in attempt to uncover the reasons to my questions above. I also wish to draw connection between the student groups and the concepts of performance we established in class, and give the Chinese students more credit for their spectacular performance in America.

Left: A flyer by Berkeley Stanford China Forum (BSCF). Right: Da Tong Academy's movie-and-discussion night on American Factory. Photo from the Internet.
Welcome Night at beginning of school year. Photo by Mark Zeng of BCSSA.


Without doubt, Chinese international students represent a significant demographic group on the UC Berkeley campus. According to "University of California - Berkeley International" by College Factual, about 2900 student on campus are from China, accounting for 7% of the entire student population. As an active member of the Chinese community at Berkeley, I have frequently interacted with CRSOs, or registered student organizations established and run predominantly by Chinese international students. I noticed that Chinese are especially eager to participate in student organization activities, a unique phenomenon that stands out among the diverse ethnic groups on campus. In this essay, I will examine how CRSOs play a crucial role in Chinese students’ experience in America. Specifically, I aim to demonstrate that the CRSOs create a platform for Chinese students to celebrate their identities, and collectively fight the difficulty of being aliens in America. I also wish to elicit the desires and struggles of a typical international Chinese student in America and draw connection between the act of participating in CRSOs and the concepts of performance we established in class.

Away from home, it is no surprise that international students from any country shall form circles to share academic resources, meet new friends and celebrate traditional holidays. However, the prevalence of CRSOs is unique to the Chinese community. There is a network of 20+ CRSOs at Berkeley. CRSOs provide resources that span a large range of interests, from culture, social, entertainment to career, professional community and specific areas of academia. According to my empirical estimate from interacting with Chinese students, at least 80% of them have been an official member of at least one CRSO. Almost all Chinese students are familiar with a few CRSOs and have participated in some CRSO-organized events. My first observation is that interacting with CRSOs helps foster strong relationship among Chinese students. At the center of the network are two general-service CRSOs, Berkeley Chinese Students and Scholars Association (BCSSA) and Chinese People Union (CPU). Every year, the two groups act as first point of contact and organize a series of welcoming events for incoming Chinese students. They each maintain a large commercial-free communication platform for students to meet online, ask questions, and plan their life at Berkeley. Each group’s members then respond to the questions real-time and compose articles on key problems in various steps of preparing for Berkeley. With their help, I was able to find roommates, arrive at my dorm, pick classes, and meet a large group of friends. I quickly established my sense of belonging to the Chinese community and met some other Chinese students who would later become my best friends. All such services are provided voluntarily by members of these two CRSOs. In an interview with Krystal, a transfer student and Culture Chair of BCSSA, she said that the Chinese community at Berkeley has made her feel “at home” and allowed her to regain pride as an international student in America. As the director of multiple large-stage cultural events, including the New Year Gala in Zellarbach Hall, She found it important for the community to have grand celebration of Chinese culture, and felt propelled to take on the course of executing it. When asked how she benefited from her roles in the community, she said that aside from leadership and event-planning skills, she treasures the trust and friendship that she established with other Chinese students the most. "Meeting somebody from China lets me feel an instant connection. Collaborating on BCSSA's cultural projects lets us become comrades." She explained. "It's nice to surround myself with dependable people in this country. You never know when you'd need them." In a conversation with Leo, a German engineer working in the Bay Area, he reported a similar desire for connecting with people who shared his background. "I met this person and I could immediately tell he was German. We got super close in minutes. You don't get this kind of proximity with a typical American co-worker." Reasonably, the sentiments shared by Krystal and Leo are common in various international communities in America, cultural, professional or otherwise. Given the large population of Chinese students at Berkeley, each CRSO only represents a small fraction of the population, the grouping of which is consistent with the desire for close cliques in a foreign country expressed by both interviewees.

It remains to explain why the professional oriented groups chose to establish such structured CRSOs rather than remaining a closed interest group. I originally believed that student leaders sought leadership titles for their personal interests. However, an interview with Cora, a junior Chinese international student studying undergraduate business administration at Haas School of Business, revealed me the warm side of professional CRSOs. Asked for her comment on her experience as a member of Chinese Finance Club (CFC), she complained that international students have very little chance to attend Haas as an undergraduate or securing any internship in investment banking. As a member of CFC, she explained, she received extensive peer critique on her Haas application essay and performed mock interviews with her mentors. "I didn't understand why I deserved their help. They helped so much. It was literally an impossible task without them." As a result, she became one of a few Chinese students admitted to the business school in 2018. When asked why she didn’t find other business club as useful (we were both in another business club in freshman year), she said that the American citizens weren't even in the same game as her. "It's like we all play this game, except they have hacks, at least in the investment banking industry." She joked. She also expressed that her Chinese mentors in CFC were able to sympathize with her goals better and gave more tailored recommendations based on her background. Cora is now a mentor in CFC helping four underclassmen with their applications. “I feel the urge to give back to this amazing community”, she said, “I wouldn't be who I am today without these lovely people. All I can do is giving the best to the next class.” I was touched by her comments. I have personally served as Vice President in BCSSA for the exact reason of giving back to the community. Having collaborated with professional CRSOs, I still underestimate the power of the virtuous circle that our community has established. For an international student who plays the underprivileged game in career development, they reach for the professional CRSOs for the unparalleled mentoring opportunities, and once they gain sufficient experiences in the fields, they return to give the resources back to the community. Such cycle of flowing knowledge essentially keeps the professional CRSOs strong.

To the young Chinese men and women studying at Berkeley, living in America is probably a bittersweet experience. While praising the CRSOs for arranging selfless services, we must remember that it is exactly the Chinese students who devote their time to create, organize and contribute to the CRSOs. Brave are they to travel across the globe to take on the adventure in America, and braver are they to fight the challenges using all resources available, and shape their America to what they envision to be. “America is an act of passion or belief, conjured into existence through visual and verbal performatives.” (Taylor, "Remapping" 1421). The greatest of America lies in the fact that everybody defines it, argues it, and performs it. For many of the Chinese students, "America" meant nothing but a promise before they set feet on this land. Once here, they recognized the challenges they face - namely, cultural shock, loneliness, need for dependability, career obstacle, etc. - and collectively put on the grand performance of establishing, maintaining and expanding the beautiful network of CRSOs, to combat these challenges. Each Existing CRSO is a combination of pioneer’s lasting heritage and new comer’s fresh innovation. The thriving network of CRSOs, and the community they represent, represent the Chinese students' voice for their desired form of America, where they could harness the benefit high education while avoiding many undesired difficulties. After all, even as non-citizens, they too can define their own America.

Left: Halloween celebration. Right: Phoenix Symphony performing at New Year Gala. Photos by BCSSA.


“University of California - Berkeley International.” College Factual, 13 Sept. 2019, https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/university-of-california-berkeley/student-life/international/#modalCN.

Taylor, Diana. "Remapping Genre through Performance: From 'American' to 'Hemispheric' Studies." PMLA 122 (2007): 1416-30.