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Rapid extension of international students in China increased rapidly with the backing of public diplomacy. How are these graduates contributing to Chinese foreign policy in various contexts? This article presents a case study which explores the experiences of international study, attitudinal changes, and post-graduation trajectories of a group of Ugandan graduates from Chinese universities. The findings indicate issues with the assumptions around how international higher education provision contributes to public diplomacy. The evidence from the case study highlights the previously neglected relevance of students’ agency and decision-making to the process of soft power accumulation. The participants in this study expressed ambivalence towards study experiences and Chinese foreign policy, but still chose to engage with China post-graduation, as doing so represented an opportunity to use their knowledge of Chinese language and culture in the Ugandan labour market. This also highlights the how students’ agentic decision-making is related to global geopolitical competition, and the nature of the bilateral relations between host and sending nations.