The hotel elevator doors opened and Yiwei Huang stepped out, ready for his college orientation.
He held his mother's hand as he approached the registration table.
He pored over the rows of name tags, each belonging to a future classmate, until he spotted his own, printed with both his familiar Chinese name and "Allen" in parentheses — the name he will go by when he enrolls later this month at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
U. of I. is "very beautiful," he said, though he has seen it only through the Internet. Huang, 18, has never been to the campus. He has never been to the United States.
"College life can change a person," he explained, "and I think Illinois is a good place for me."
More than 600 Chinese teenagers have made the same decision, and soon they will arrive on campus as part of the Class of 2018.
They will represent nearly 10 percent of the entering freshman class at the state's most competitive public university, up from fewer than 20 freshmen in 2006. And they are so important to the university's present and future that a U. of I. team flew halfway around the world this summer to conduct three orientation sessions in their country.
While the students and their families are betting their futures on a U. of I. education, the university depends on the full tuition they pay — a minimum of $31,000 a year, in some cases totaling twice that of an Illinois resident, plus housing and other costs.
U. of I. has more international students than any other American public university, and it trails only the University of Southern California, a private institution. All told, including graduate students who qualify for some aid, about 9,400 international students funneled $166 million into the Urbana-Champaign campus budget last year in tuition alone, triple the amount from just five years ago.
When fees and housing are factored in, international students contributed $211 million to the campus budget, accounting for 25 percent of the amount paid by all students. Nearly half that sum came from China, university figures show.
"It brings dollars into the state. That can't be our primary objective, but it does contribute to the state's economy," said U. of I. President Robert Easter, who said the Chinese student increase is part of the university's broader interest in China, reflected by the opening of a Shanghai office in December.
"The Chinese students enrich the culture of the campus and the diversity of the student population," said Easter, who spent four days in China in June. "The University of Illinois has to be fully engaged with that nation in terms of preparing our students for futures that will undoubtedly involve interactions with China."
Yet many international students arrive with little knowledge about the campus or Illinois in general, a problem highlighted last fall when a Chinese student arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and paid a man posing as a cabdriver more than $4,000 to drive him 150 miles to the Urbana-Champaign campus.
That incident and others prompted university officials to realize that while they held several events for freshmen in the U.S., they had been providing little pre-arrival information to foreign students and their parents.
"They weren't feeling quite as supported as they would have liked," said Nicole Tami, the university's first director of international student integration, a position created in August 2013. "If you are coming from one of our suburbs, you can visit the campus multiple times as you're making decisions, and then there are welcome days and summer orientations.
"International students are coming sight unseen."
So the university for the first time scheduled daylong sessions this summer in three of China's leading cities — Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou — with one purpose in mind: making the students feel welcome. About 570 students and their parents attended.
"It is my great pleasure to officially welcome each of you to the University of Illinois family," said Bryan Endres, interim associate provost for international affairs, as he kicked off the first orientation, held at a Shanghai hotel on a Friday afternoon in June. He spoke to a ballroom filled with about 225 students and family members, sitting in rows beneath crystal chandeliers.
The university officials spoke in English, with their messages translated on big screens in the front of the room. A current U. of I. student and a recent graduate from China spoke in Mandarin.
For five hours, the incoming Illini learned everything they could, from tips about the visa application process (bring proof of your finances) to what clothes to pack for an Illinois winter. Yes, the winters are cold. No, the food isn't that bad — particularly if you shop at the local Asian grocery stores or bring some dried mushrooms from home.