Rabbiya Saba, 19, from Pakistan's east Punjab Province, has started her school in China's Sichuan Province to pursue a bachelor's degree in medicine. She said she adjusted to life in China much earlier than expected mainly due to the hospitality of the Chinese people.
"I don't feel China is a 'foreign country.' We get great respect here. We have a separate class of 50 students in the university here. Most of our teachers are also Pakistanis so there is no language or cultural barrier here. We feel very comfortable in our classes and dormitories," Saba told Xinhua from Sichuan through WeChat.
Saba said many of her friends who went to high school with her in Pakistan are also pursuing medical degree from various universities in China.
Apart from Saba and her friends, there are some 22,000 Pakistani students studying in various majors in China. In 2017 alone, about 2,500 new Pakistani students were enrolled in China, according to a recent statistics released by the Pakistani embassy in China.
"Initially I felt homesickness, and missed Pakistan so much. But gradually I realized that Chinese are very nice people. They try to talk to you in sign language and try to help you to feel at home in their country. I hope I will learn their good qualities and will practice them in Pakistan when I will return home after completing my studies," Saba said.
The consultants who send students to China said there are three major sets of students who visit China including medical students, engineering students and the students who visit there to study Chinese language. They said the trend of Pakistani students choosing China for their academic pursuits is increasing due to multiple reasons.
Amjad Iqbal, managing director of EBC Worldwide, a consultancy firm that sends students from Pakistan, India and African countries to China, told Xinhua that they started sending students to China from 2007.
"At that time many universities wanted to welcome Pakistani students, but the students here were not so interested in flying to China in the pursuit of higher education. But things have drastically changed since the last four, five years. Now many students want to study in China, but I don't have enough seats to accommodate them despite increased quota for international students by the Chinese institutes."
Iqbal, who himself is a graduate in western medicine from Xi'an Medical University in China, graded the number of Pakistani medical students seeking admission in Chinese universities the highest, followed by engineering cadres and those who visit China to learn Chinese language.
He said the tuition fee of medical colleges in Pakistan is two to three times higher than that of China, which is the main reason why China is the favorite destination of aspiring medicine candidates from Pakistan.
"A candidate can get medical degree from China in less than 30,000 U.S. dollars including dormitory charges whereas in Pakistan the tuition fee alone costs students over 80,000 U.S. dollars."
"It will not be wrong to say that medicine is the most favorite profession of Pakistanis. Every year hundreds of thousands of students apply for admission in state owned medical colleges, which provide good quality education at affordable rates, but many fail to get through because of tough competition as the number of such medical colleges in the country is very limited," Iqbal said.
He added that many students then vie for private medical colleges but there are many others from the country's middle class who cannot afford to study there because of high dues.
"At that stage China acts as the only hope for hundreds of Pakistani students every year, who visit the country for affordable and quality education. China is our brotherly country so parents of the students don't hesitate in sending them there. They feel safe about their children, who are mostly in teenage, to fly to China in the pursuit of their dreams," he told Xinhua.
He said he alone sent about 3,000 medical students to China in the past decade, and there are tens of other dealers in the country, sending more such students.
Iqbal said China is easily accessible for Pakistani students as its visa policies are not so tough for Pakistanis. "China borders Pakistan so psychologically people feel safe in sending their children there because of its geographical closeness to our country," he said.
Besides, the law and order situation in China is remarkable, so students, even girls can move and travel freely unlike in some other Asian countries. The peaceful environment in China further makes it an ideal education destination even for the conservative families in Pakistan, he noted.
He said after the launch of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a number of engineering students seeking PhD or master's degree has increased manifold, some supported fully or partially by scholarships from both Pakistani and Chinese governments.
According to latest statistics of Pakistani embassy in Beijing, currently, 2,700 Pakistani students are pursuing master's and doctorate degrees in top Chinese universities on fully funded scholarships sponsored by the Chinese government.
Kalsoom Sumra, a doctorate degree holder in policy sciences from China, is working as an associate professor in Pakistan's top-ranked university Comsats University of Information Technology in Islamabad.
Sumra, who returned to Pakistan in 2017 after studying on a scholarship of the Chinese government, told Xinhua that as a Muslim woman she did not feel any kind of "awkwardness" of cultural differences.
"Chinese are very polite and soft people, and they do not interrupt in your cultural things. They have respect even for your food, for your dress and all that. They are not biased as compared to Europeans, even the girls who wear veils they (Chinese) don't have any problem with them. They accept every kind of culture," Sumra told Xinhua in an interview in her office over looking the scenic Margallah hills of Islamabad.
"China is opening up for the other countries too, but it is opening up more for Pakistan and this educational exchange will further bring the countries together, as after the launch of CPEC it became more important for both countries to have a clearer understanding of each other's culture. And Pakistanis who graduated from China will act as a bridge to connect both countries," she said.
Sohaib Ajmal, a student of computer sciences in Pakistan's top ranking University of Engineering and Technology, said his future education destination is China.
"I will pursue a degree in PhD from China after completing my master degree because Chinese universities are rapidly increasing in world rankings and I believe I can get quality education from there at a much lower cost than European and American universities."
Officials from Pakistan's Higher Education Commission said they provide merit-based doctorate scholarships annually to brilliant students to five top-rated Chinese universities.
"The students showed great interest in studying in China as Chinese universities are among the best universities of the world. So students from different faculties including science and technology and arts chose China for pursuing their degrees," one official said.
Another official said they are sending 50 students from southwest port city of Gwadar to Chinese universities for learning Chinese language.
"They will study in China for one year, and will get involved in CPEC projects upon their return to Pakistan. Pakistani government is sponsoring these 50 candidates to facilitate Chinese working on CPEC projects in Gwadar as they will not only learn Chinese language, but will also have a clear understanding of Chinese culture. And this move will also to help locals get good jobs in the projects which are going on in their area."
Abid Raheem, an education consultant in Islamabad, said if Chinese universities hire more English speaking staff to facilitate international students, the number of students applying will further increase.
Naveed Mukhtaar, a Pakistani PhD student in China, said being an international student in China is an immensely rewarding experience for him.
"I got a great exposure during my stay in China. Not only did I get a chance to meet a lot of people from different countries who visit China for studies, but also had a first hand experience to witness China's historic transformation from an underdeveloped country into a major world power," Mukhtaar said.
"Chinese are very hardworking people with rich culture and great traditions. I hope that the time-tested friendship between Pakistan and China will further strengthen in the future," the PhD student told Xinhua through WeChat from China.