From the coronavirus to learning a new language: struggles of ECC’s Chinese international students


Ao Zhong

Photo of Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet, China taken by ECC Chinese international student Ao Zhong.

Hadley Corbett, Staff Writer

Yanxian Zhang came to Elgin Community College in April of 2019. She had married her husband the year before and moved to America with him from Guangdong Province in Southern China. Zhang is planning to soon transfer to receive an undergraduate degree in computer science.

Around 60 students from abroad are currently enrolled at ECC, 11 of whom are originally from China. Being an international student is not easy. While each student encounters unique difficulties, some challenges are more common than others, such as not enjoying American food, becoming overwhelmed with academics, having difficulty communicating and feeling homesick. 

Even after studying English for several years in China, Zhang is still working hard to learn new words and phrases.

“The school has been helpful for me,” Zhang said. “Even though I’m still not a good speaker, I can understand others much more.”

It can be stressful for Zhang having her family, including her parents and two brothers, and friends so far away. A friend of Zhang’s, Xia Hou, is unable to get out of Wuhan with the coronavirus outbreak.

“They are running out of masks in Wuhan,” Zhang said. “Around Elgin one cannot buy masks, too, because people who live here, who have families in Wuhan go to buy masks and ship them. I haven’t tried this though, since my hometown is not affected.”

International student enrollment has increased over the last ten years. ECC encourages enrollment by working with many international partners to recruit and offering an array of programs for students including a full-time Intensive English Program and an International Student Homestay Program where students live with an American family.

“The U.S. has long been a top destination for international students due to its high quality education, flexible options and variety of degree programs,” said Lauren Nehlsen, ECC director of international education and programs. “[ECC’s] programs help support international students as they start their studies in the U.S. The excellent support services provided combined with flexible enrollment options and the homestay program make ECC a top choice for international students.”

Jiyu Chen was born in Chengdu, China and came to ECC about a year and a half ago. Chen hopes to transfer to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to pursue Computer Science. Until then, he finds academics at ECC stressful and is striving to complete 70 credits in the four semesters he is at ECC.

Chen traveled to Wuhan at the end of December to visit his girlfriend. When he felt a little sick after returning, he went into voluntary house arrest for a few weeks. Chen was released on Feb. 3 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed he did not have the coronavirus.

In addition to traveling home during breaks to visit his hometown, Chen makes sure to video call with his parents once a week. One of the things he misses the most about his home is the food.

“The food is a big struggle,” Chen said. “Cheeseburgers and pizza are not foods I like. They’re not healthy options. It’s especially bad at ECC, but not great anywhere. I like Chinese food…my favorite Chinese dish is hotpot. I think ECC should have more vegetable dishes too.”

International students like Zhang and Chen are an important part of the ECC community.

“The future competition is international, and we are working with the international community to develop our country and our economy,” said Ruixuan Mao, ECC dean of communications and behavioral sciences. “Students graduating from our college need to be prepared for the future challenges. Getting to know the international students and inviting them to the United States to study with our general population gives a chance for understanding.”