When Harem Sewaisi, a 22-year-old student from Kurdistan, Iraq learned that his application for a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) was successful, he was very pleased. He had been waiting for about a month to hear from the body.
The CSC is a non-profit institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education that provides financial assistance to Chinese who wish to study abroad and foreigners who want to study in China.
"Only 20 spots are open to Iraqi students every year," said Sewaisi, who is currently pursuing a master's degree in environmental engineering at Beihang University in Beijing.
Like Sewaisi, many international students wish to get a scholarship to study in China. There is a range of scholarships for international students to apply for on the CSC's official website, including scholarships from the Chinese government, Confucius Institutes, Chinese local governments, foreign governments, universities and enterprises.
A group on Facebook called "China scholarship council" has attracted more than 30,000 members from different countries to date and discusses topics like how to apply for a Chinese scholarship, the problems one might encounter along the way and so on.
YouTube videos that talk about similar topics have been watched thousands of times, among them videos of students sharing their own experience of finding and applying for Chinese scholarships are more popular.
Some international students do not find it too difficult to successfully apply for a Chinese scholarship, while others consider it challenging due to competition from other hopefuls and limitations on the number of scholarships that can be awarded to some countries annually.
Sewaisi is thankful for being offered a scholarship to study in China. He understands that it is very competitive and the requirements are high. About seven of his friends applied to the CSC last year, and all of them were rejected.
"Sometimes I feel guilty that I got [a scholarship] and my friends did not," he said.
He, however, noted that if he were to apply for a scholarship today, it would be more difficult because more Iraqi students are applying for Chinese scholarships, but there are only 20 places available.
Moreover, he added that the deteriorating situation in Iraq adds to the difficulty.
"Before 2014 and 2015, life in Iraq, especially Kurdistan, was much better, so not many people were interested in studying abroad," he said. "But after that, the situation became bad, and everyone wants to apply for a scholarship and run far away from Iraq to study for a while."
He plans to read for a doctorate after he graduates and worries that he may not get a scholarship to fulfill his dream.
"Our country is facing a terrible economic crisis, and my family cannot support me financially," he said.
Hard work and diligence
Tran Ba Hieu, a 30-year-old Vietnamese PhD student majoring in traditional Chinese medicine and pharmacology at Fudan University in Shanghai, has been in China for over 10 years.
The main factors that drove him to come to China to study in 2006 lie not only in his deep interest in traditional Chinese medicine but also in Vietnam's Ministry of Education awarding him a scholarship to study in China.
After he graduated with an undergraduate degree in 2011, he decided to stay in China and pursue a master's degree and a doctorate.
The Shanghai municipal government gave him a full scholarship to pursue his master's in 2011 and again in 2014 for his PhD before he received another scholarship from the Chinese government in 2016.
However, reflecting on his good fortune, Tran said it was not easy to successfully apply for those scholarships and that he had worked very hard for each one.
The Shanghai municipal government awards about 20 to 30 scholarships to Fudan University every year, and the Chinese government gives 20 to 30, according to Tran.
"It is very competitive," he said. "One out of every 100 applicants gets a scholarship."
To stay competitive, Tran said he needed to have an outstanding academic record and be an active participant in volunteer activities.
"I work hard to maintain a more than 80 percent average, and I cannot fail a single exam," Tran said.
He read a great number of books related to his major and attended many academic conferences. He also took part in volunteer activities organized by the university during the summer and winter vacation every year, such as visiting nursing homes and being a volunteer at the Shanghai World Expo.
He said if he did not get a scholarship to study in China, he would have stayed in his home country to study because he did not want to give his retired parents too much financial pressure.
"If I had chosen to study in China without a scholarship, I would have looked for a job while studying to pay for the expenses," he said.
A smoother journey
For Lena Elsborg, a 25-year-old student from Denmark who has been pursuing a master's degree in international journalism and new media at Communication University of China since 2016, the road to her scholarship was far less bumpy, but the reward was equally sweet.
When she was studying for her bachelor's degree in Denmark, a professor of hers who was from the Confucious Institute at her university asked her if she would like to apply for a scholarship. There were two scholarship spots available through the Chinese embassy in Denmark, and she applied for one.
"It was very simple. I finished the application online, and within a few months it was accepted by the Chinese embassy in Denmark," said Elsborg.
She said applying for a scholarship was not hard for her because no one else in her university was interested in going to China to study for two years.
She said if she had not gotten a scholarship from China, she would have applied for one from Denmark, and that would have been harder because generally, a degree in China is not seen as a full one according to the education system in Denmark. A Chinese university degree carries fewer credits than a Danish degree, she explained.
"If there are more credits for degrees from Chinese universities, I could get a lot of financial help from the Danish government as well," she said.
Elsborg said, as far as she knows, only Peking University offers degrees that are acknowledged in Denmark.
"For a while, I was considering going there just to get the extra economic help, but I didn't in the end [because of my interest]," said Elsborg.
She said she would love to see the problem with the credits fixed, as it may make it easier to convince more Danes to study in China.
She said although it was not very hard for her to apply for a Chinese scholarship, the application process was a lonely experience. So, she makes videos about how to apply for Chinese scholarships and posts them on her YouTube channel Lenaaround to help more people gain access to scholarship opportunities.
A video she made on the topic has been viewed more than 6,000 times to date.
"I was on my own during the whole thing," she said. "I assume that it is much nicer if there is a group of people [who are doing it with you]."
In the meantime, some Chinese schools like GIST International College (GIC) in Jiangsu Province are putting things in place to welcome more international students.
Zhang Peng, who works in GIC's international student's office said there are many types of scholarships available to international students who want to study at the college.
For example, the Jiangsu government offers a scholarship to students from Southeast Asian countries, and there are various scholarships from city governments and the college.
"Half of the overseas students in the college have scholarships, and the college is working to provide more scholarships for the students," said Zhang.