American students, and particularly girls, have “Best Friends Forever.” But not like here in China. Today is graduation day and about 8,000 undergraduate students will assemble in a large new stadium in the South Campus for this massive ceremony. (You can think of Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University as almost two Kansas State Universities combined.)
This massive ceremony is the climax of exactly four years for every one of the students. But they have had their caps and gowns for over a week and everywhere I walked, I saw clusters of students posing in full academic regalia in front of their department building.
“Tong xue” is the Chinese word for classmate. It means much more than “classmate” does in English. Our students spend an average of five-and-a-half years in college, with six out of ten changing majors at least once. But absolutely every Chinese student spends exactly four years to get their degree.
All four years they live in the same dormitory room—six to a room. The block of about ten rooms (sixty students) are all in the same major, and they live in this block all four years. They travel to their classes as a group, similar to U.S. middle school students. Generally, 60 or 120 students attend each class. Each group of 60 elects one student leader who is in charge of coordinating them. This “class monitor,” for lack of a better name, has heavy responsibilities as a go-between with faculty. If a student is not showing up in class, the teacher calls the class monitor to get the absent student back in class. They select this class leader among their classmates during their first few weeks of compulsory military training before their freshman year begins.
When I taught two entomology clusters in spring of 2012, the provincial government announced an extended weekend vacation (grave-sweeping festival) that canceled Monday classes on short notice. Instead, we would meet the following Saturday. I asked, how will all the students know of this last minute switch? They will know, I was told. Every one of them showed up.
This tight-knit class organization was also useful when, literally on a moment’s notice, they diverted to a new classroom when an overhead PowerPoint projector broke down in the prior class.
Cell phones and messaging is phenomenally cheap in China. Every student has a phone and they use a group messaging system “QQ” to stay continually in touch. But unlike American students who think they are part of a network with their distant friends they rarely see, through Facebook or other media formats, these students live together and eat together and attend class together every day. They are one big family for four years.
The class that begins together and stays together pretty much graduates together. I asked one student if any drop out. In a group of sixty, yes a few will not be in graduation today. Although they passed the gao kao test at the end of high school, and usually with high scores to enter this university (this is a Rank 1 school), a few do not have the “right stuff” to complete college. There are personal emergencies back home. A few have what we would call nervous breakdowns. This school also must take a quota of students from the impoverished areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, etc. These students often have lower scores and have more difficulty.
Failure in classes—when parents and grandparents have sacrificed so much to get their student to college—can generate terrible feelings of shame. A few students drop out and return home to forever live a poor life where their failure is never spoken but everpresent. A few cannot face this and jump from the tallest campus building, although thankfully, this is becoming less common.
Such bad outcomes would be more common, but this 4-year comradery provides a family support for many students. They help each other get through. Thus in four years, these classmates have formed bonds that we rarely see except perhaps in fraternities and sororities, or the dedicated resident hall communities at Harvard, etc.
This graduating class will have classmates that will be special forever. Even though they disperse across China, they will keep in close touch. If they are in businesses that supply each other, the arrangements will be mutually advantageous.
Much more than in the West, classmates in China will be best friends forever.