Now You See Me, Now You Don't: A brief history of Duke international students

In the Beginning Were the Missionaries

Historical Background:

The earliest record of foreign students studying in the U.S. colleges dates back to the late eighteenth century when the legendary Venezuelan revolutionist Francisco de Miranda enrolled in Yale University in 1784 (Bevis &Lucas, 41). At a time in which overseas travel remained inconvenient and U.S. colleges still coming of age, such a choice is probably purely out of his adventurous spirit. 

Chinese Educational Mission

Students selected for the Chinese Educational Mission were all sent to the New England area and later enter American colleges. This photo was taken in 1872 when the first six students arrived in America. Courtesy of Wikipedia. 

By the middle and late nineteenth century, as science and technology innovation took place during the second industrial revolution, a western education has become something not only desirable but superior in the eyes of the Orientals. In the 1870s, small groups of Chinese students were sent by the Qing government to study sciences and engineering in the U.S. through the Chinese Educational Mission; there were at the same period, enrollments from Japan as well. (Bevis &Lucas, 43-58).

Possibly due to its secluded location in the south and the religious nature of the education it offered, Trinity College was not among the destinations of the first Asian foreign students. But it would soon welcome its first international student as well. 

Charles Soong portrait

Charles Soong portrait

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Story of A “missionary special” 

The young Charles Jones Song arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 1880 with his uncle. He soon ran away from his uncle and came to North Carolina.  In 1881, under the sponsorship of Durham industrialist and Methodist layman Julian S. Carr, Soong enrolled in Trinity College, where he studied for about one year before transferring to Vanderbilt University to finish his degree in theology. In 1886, Soong returned to his hometown as a missionary.

His life after returning to China was legendary. After doing missionary work for a few years and making a great fortune from printing business, he helped finance the Chinese revolution. All his six children received education in the U.S., and two of his daughters married the two most powerful leaders in China.

The remarkable deeds of Trinity’s first international students became the long-lasting obsession of the institution as well as the local community despite the fact that he only studied here for a year.  Like all first comers who left a remark in history, Soong’s story was frequently repeated, mystified, and even exploited to confirm the superiority of western ideology.

Historical literature of the early 20th century emphasized his Christianity and framed Soong’s incredible achievements attributed to “the Divine grace which flooded his soul" and of the education he received in Trinity. This foreign student’s individual autonomy was diminished, for he is considered but a human embodiment of “the blessing”. 

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