Chinese New Millennial Sea Turtles

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Chinese individuals who study or work overseas before returning to China are often called “Sea Turtles.” The recent notable trend is that more students going back to China after they earn their degrees. According to the statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Education, the ratio between students who study abroad and those that eventually return to China has narrowed from 3.15:1 to 1.28:1 within the last decade.

What has caused the increasing number of Sea Turtles? How would American universities and communities that host Chinese students respond to this trend? This year, Indiana University has hosted more than 3,200 Chinese students, accounting for 36 percent of its total international student population. Among those students, business is the most popular major. We invited Jing Han, a career coach at the Kelley School of Business to share her experiences working with her Chinese students and attending the first IU overseas job fair in China.

Jing Han discussed two main factors that have contributed to her students’ decisions of returning to China after graduation. One is that China’s rapidly growing economy provides career opportunities for students with overseas study experience. The other is that Chinese students are facing a lot of challenges when looking for job opportunities in the U.S.

“U.S. employers not only require that job candidates speak fluent English, but also have good communication skills to in order to work effectively in a team setting and to connect well with company clients,” Jing said. “It takes considerable time and consistent practice to gain these skills. However, many Chinese students are not used to the American university career development model, which expects students to take ownership of their career by starting early and developing a plan.”

The other salient challenge is the limited number of work visas available to international students. According to Jing, “many companies are not willing to hire them due to their reluctance in dealing with the paperwork required by the immigration office, the associated cost, and the risk that visa applications might not be approved. Therefore, my colleagues and I always advise and prepare international students for multiple post-graduation options, such as pursuing graduate degrees or running a dual job search in the U.S. and in their home countries.” Jing said.

To connect its students to prospective employers in China, Indiana University, joined by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southern California, the Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota and the New York Institute of Technology, created its first career fair in China in the past summer. Hosted in Shanghai and Beijing, the career fair attracted more than 1,750 Chinese students who study at the six American universities. More than half of the students major in business, followed by those in information technology and biology. As the first overseas career fair IU has ever hosted, it provided great opportunities for the University to learn about the job market for its foreign students returning to their home country and to design career services to better meet foreign students’ needs.  Jing said that she has gathered the contact information of more than 100 companies and government agencies that are interested in regularly recruiting Chinese overseas students.

What are the advantages and disadvantages Chinese international students have encountered while they look for job opportunities in China?

Jing shared the feedback from the participating companies: “Companies acknowledge that students trained at American universities and colleges have a more solid knowledge base in their major studies and more hands-on experiences than their local peers do.  In addition, it was reported that the employees with overseas degrees demonstrated better cross-cultural communication skills that enable them to work with people from diverse backgrounds.”

However, companies also expressed their concerns. Jing said, “Companies are concerned whether those students are committed to going back to China to work, or are they just using those companies as a backup.  For those who do go back to China, they have higher expectations than their local peers regarding salaries, benefits, as well as career development opportunities. Correspondingly, companies reported that that millennials with overseas degrees have a stronger tendency to be job hoppers than their local peers. “

Sea Turtles also need to quickly adapt to the local business culture. Companies point out that overseas Chinese graduates, especially those who studied at foreign universities since their freshmen year, do not have a good understanding concerning local Chinese clients’ needs and way of thinking.

In an increasingly connected and complicated world, global cultural competency is a must for career success. The International Center, by providing programs such as customized trainings, cross-cultural communication workshops and seminars, aims to facilitate the development of a global workforce in the Hoosier state. To learn more about what our programming can do for you, visit this page or contact me at

By Lei Wang, China Project Manager