Nearly all of my respondents believe that high academic stress is mainly due to Chinese students themselves who are highly motivated to achieve. Chinese students’ critical concerns about academic excellence are rooted in Chinese traditional cultural values, which emphasize education and hard work. Confucian philosophy views education as important for the improvement of job prospects and even more important as a means for building one’s character. Influenced by this philosophy, Chinese family values and socialization experiences emphasize the need to succeed educationally. Chinese parents typically attach great importance to their children’s academic achievement. Academic success of the child brings a sense of pride and joy to the entire family, while academic failure is perceived as letting one’s family down and causing them to lose face (Hui 1988; Stiglar et al. 1985). Growing up in this culture, Chinese students internalized these positive educational values (cultural demand for educational excellence) and take personal responsibility for their own learning. They always strive to succeed in order to make their family happy and proud of them. Even after they come to United States, the pressure to achieve still is firmly retained by Chinese students. Just as an industrial engineering student claimed:
Just like most Chinese students here, I was taught very early in life to work hard and achieve excellence in education. Achievement through effort, hard work, and endurance is highly emphasized both in my family and at school. My parents believe that academic success will ensure a better and more prosperous future and thereby set an extremely high standard for me. They dedicated numerous time, money, and energy to my study. To make my parents happy and proud, I work very hard to ensure I always perform to the best of my abilities on all exams. As a result, I always feel stressed out, especially after I came to United States. I am not sure if I can do as well as before in such a totally unfamiliar academic environment. (Participant 10)
A female student added:
My parents worked very hard and sacrificed much to get me here to continue my higher education in the United States. I owe them so much. The only way I can honor my parents is to study hard and get excellent grades. Hence, I feel exceptional pressure not to fail. (Participant 1)
An electrical engineering student stated:
I studied very hard and devoted most of my time to pursuing degrees in the United States.
To me, degrees from American universities not only bring honor to my family at home but also can allow me to have good future job opportunities in the United States or in China. I deeply believe that academic excellence is a requirement for attaining a US degree. I have devoted myself to earning as many As as possible even though some courses are difficult for foreign students. It is important for me to have an excellent GPA since I believe that a very good GPA is a critical factor for future job hunting in the United States. (Participant 7)
An accounting student concurred:
It is obvious that every Chinese student here knows that education is his or her only hope for social acceptance and financial security. As a result, many of us feel anxiety and stress. With the pressure to excel academically, almost all of us spend endless hours studying. When comparing myself with other Chinese students in terms of educational achievement,
I feel even more stressed. (Participant 6)
An educational psychology student stated:
I am overly concerned with my academic performance. If I am accidentally unable to get an “A” in a quiz or a test, I feel overstressed, frustrated, depressed, like it is the end of the world. (Participant 16)
Chinese students are socialized to value education and often consider school work as part of their filial duty (Wilson and Pusey 1982; Stevenson et al. 1986). High parental expectations, the constant pressure to do well in schools, and the fear of failure create extreme feelings of stress and anxiety for Chinese students. In addition, concerns about upward mobility through education also contribute to the high level of stress. A mechanical engineering student summarized:
My academic stress comes from the expectation of my parents, as well as my own demand to look forward to a better tomorrow in America. I hope to have a good career in the United States, and I must maintain a record of academic excellence for my future. (Participant 8)
Facing the strain of language and academic problems, Chinese students feel even more stress if they fail. Because attaining an advanced degree is a major way for Chinese students to achieve higher status in China, or to pursue their dreams in the United States, the potential negative consequences of academic failure are considerable. A female doctoral student in finance stated:
I carried all hopes and expectations from the family and relatives in my hometown to the United States. I told myself that I would bring more honor to my family and to the people who support me. It was the most stressful summer in my life, preparing for the qualifying exam. I studied very hard but still worried so much about whether I would pass. I could not sleep well at night. I was so nervous the first day of my qualifying exams that I sat in the room without being able to write. I felt my brain was a blank even though I had studied hard for months. I tried to push myself to force out some answers for the qualifier questions, but I could not do it. The more I pushed myself, the more my brain turned blank. (Participant 4)
A bioengineering student said:
Asa student in a science major, I have to publishthree papers in peer-reviewed journals before I get the degree. Otherwise, my job prospects in this country will be bleak. I usually spend at least 12heach day in the lab torunmy experiments. Allday and all night, thelab is my home. It takes endless patience to work in the lab. However, the more concerned about my experiment results, the more I become impatient. I get mad very easily after hours of working in the lab. I have no choices. I need to work hard to be able to collect enough data for my papers. However, an experiment is an experiment. There is no guarantee that each experiment will be successful.
It is so frustrating when you work 3 months without obtaining any results. I did not smoke at all in China, but I am a heavy smoker right now. I found smoking can make my mind a little bit peaceful. I hope I will not get sick before finishing the current project, because I feel my breathing becoming more difficult recently. (Participant 17)
A social justice student claimed:
Study stress is a part of life here. Especially for us social science students, life will always be stressful before getting the degree and finding a stable full-time position in the United States. To make myself more competitive in the future job market, I chose to apply to law school, besides pursing my current PhD study in social justice. As you might know, I have to take LSAT test before I apply. LSAT is so challenging that even American students get headaches about it. Last fall, I spent 3 months preparing for it. I did learn a lot but the stress to get a decent grade is so overwhelming. My current program of study, my teaching assistant duty, and the preparation for the LSAT have given me a lot of stress. It is my hope to finish my schoolwork and TA duties soon to allow myself time to stay at home to focus on preparing for the LSAT. I have spent many sleepless nights preparing for the test and also worrying about what happens if I fail. I feel an emotional drought and physical exhaustion. (Participant 5)
High motivation translates to high standards and high expectations on their academic performance, which accordingly increase stress about their academic life. Furthermore, in order to maintain their previously acquired strong GPAs, students have to work even harder. This makes them even more stressed.