When classes begin at Peking University this month, Alamo resident Melissa Kidson will be there, ready to learn.

The California girl may not have a lot of cultural heritage in common with the other students, but she speaks their language.

For the past year, Kidson and 130 other international students have attended the school's Chinese language immersion program, preparing to begin college.

The Contra Costa teen is part of a trend of more Americans studying abroad, with a growing number choosing China. And, with more scholarships being offered by China and the U.S., the figures are expected to rise fast.

"I think it will be a challenge" taking college courses there, said Kidson, 18. "But I'm really excited to be pursuing something I'm passionate about."

The number of Americans going to foreign colleges tripled in the past two decades, according to a 2011 report by the Institute of International Education. In 2009-10, there were 270,604 Americans in foreign colleges. China was the fifth-most-popular destination, with 5.1 percent of the Americans choosing schools there.

Educators say students like Kidson are on the crest of a wave.

"U.S. students are increasingly aware of the need to obtain more practical skills, foreign language skills and cultural experiences that ... help them be more competitive for their careers. China provides the perfect opportunity for that," said Rajika Bhandari, the Institute of International Education's deputy vice president for research and evaluation.


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Unlike Kidson, who will attend Peking University full time, most Americans study abroad for a semester or less. Only 3.9 percent of the total stay a year or more.

But Kidson is dedicated to the language and committed to doing all her college work in China. She discovered her love for the language as a freshman at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon. Bored after one month of French, she begged Mandarin teacher Jennifer Shuen to let her switch.

"I thought it was too late," Shuen said. "I told her that she needed to work hard and make up for lost time."

Kidson did work hard, meeting Shuen during lunch to get caught up. Shuen said Kidson also impressed her by writing her characters over and over 250 times to get them down.

Although there are far more Chinese students in the U.S. than American students in China, more Americans every year are choosing China as a study abroad destination. There were 157,558 Chinese students in American colleges last year and 13,910 Americans studying in China in the 2009-10 school year. Only about 1,400 Americans were studying in China in 1995.

With the aid of scholarships, the numbers are expect to jump.

Both the Chinese and U.S. governments are pushing for more Americans to study in China, Bhandari said. The China Scholarship Council is offering 25,000 scholarships to foreign students, to increase to 50,000 in 2015. And the Obama administration is trying to increase the number of Americans in China through its "100,000 Strong" initiative. The Chinese government has committed to 10,000 "Bridge Scholarships" for U.S. students to study in China through that initiative.

And, "with higher education becoming more expensive in the Western world, affordability is a big factor," Bhandari added.

Tuition at Peking University is a relative bargain at $3,900 a year, said Melissa's father, Dan Kidson. Plus, Melissa will live for free with a Chinese family in exchange for helping their daughter learn English.

But Melissa's choice of China wasn't about the bargain. She plans to major in film and hopes to work in the growing Chinese film industry, and perhaps serve as a go-between to filmmakers in Hollywood.

"She's pursuing her passion," Dan Kidson said. "She loves the language."

Chinese can be difficult for students who have only been exposed to Western languages. They must be good listeners, said Shuen, Melissa's former Mandarin teacher. Unlike Western languages, Chinese is tonal and word meanings change with changes in tone.

Also, the language doesn't use a phonetic alphabet. Characters are memorized instead of sounded out. To read a Chinese newspaper requires knowledge of about 3,000 characters.

Despite the challenges, Shuen is confident Kidson will be successful.

"She has a very bright future," Shuen said. "We need people who speak Chinese. It's a critical language."

Contact Jason Sweeney at 925-847-2123. Follow him at Twitter.com/jason_sweeney.