First Lady Michelle Obama recently traveled to China to promote educational exchange, and she called on young Americans—from every background, every walk of life—to study in China, learn Mandarin and forge friendships that will deepen cross-cultural understanding. Her message: Understanding China is a critical skill, one that all Americans must gain in order to compete, collaborate and succeed in the 21st century.
Speaking at Peking University’s Stanford Center, Obama drew on her own experience. As a young woman from a working class family, so focused on simply getting into college and earning a degree, Obama never thought to study abroad. She observed: “Too many students may never have this chance, and some that do are hesitant to take it. They may feel like study abroad is only for wealthy students.”
As the president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit committed to strengthening US-China relations through study abroad, I couldn’t agree more.
The foundation was launched in 2013 to carry out—over the long term—the 2009 vision of President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative to dramatically increase the number and diversity of US students studying in China and learning Mandarin.
We have made great progress over the past three years: More than 68,000 Americans have studied in China since the initiative was launched, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education. We are proud of our role in boosting these numbers, which are now growing approximately 25 percent per year. Yet just as we increase these numbers, we also need to do more to ensure that Americans from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds have access to these experiences.
That is why the 100,000 Strong Foundation is partnering with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to increase the number of African American students who are learning Mandarin and studying in China. Specifically, in November 2013, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong announced that the Chinese government would provide scholarships for 400 African American high school and college students to visit China for short-term programs.
That is also why the foundation has selected a strong group of signature partners that represent all types of educational institutions and draw students from across the country. And it is why we have named more than 70 young Americans 100,000 Strong student ambassadors, to spread the word among their peers about the impact their China experience has had on their academic and professional futures. These students are our most powerful champions.
Two of these ambassadors—Philmon Haile of University of Washington and Jeffrey Wood of George Mason University—played important roles in the first lady’s China trip. Philmon emigrated from Eritrea as a child, grew up in a low-income Seattle neighborhood and through the after-school program OneWorldNow! studied Mandarin and studied in China. Jeffrey comes from Washington, D.C., public schools and first traveled to China through Americans Promoting Study Abroad, a 100,000 Strong signature partner; in college, he has found ways—and scholarships—to go back to Asia, studying in both China and Japan. These two young men are our future leaders.
But why China?
China is the United States’ most important bilateral relationship: It is our fastest-growing trade partner, with the second largest gross domestic product and the fastest-growing middle class. Whatever our international challenges—from terrorism to nuclear proliferation, financial instability and climate change—the United States cannot address them without working with China.
China is also vital to our economic future. Offering huge and growing markets for our goods and services, China is indispensable to American businesses and workers. As the first lady said, “Studying abroad isn’t just a fun way to spend a semester; it is quickly becoming the key to success in our global economy.” This “key to success” will allow students to both unlock their own futures and build America’s future.
Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong agrees, saying in a USA Today opinion piece last fall: “I am convinced that with vigorous cooperation between governments and mutual understanding and friendship between our peoples, we will be able to build a new model of major-country relationships, inspiring generations to come.”
Working with four-year and two-year colleges, high schools, and business and civic organizations of all kinds, we can help our students share in the opportunity to learn and understand China. The relationships they build today will pay dividends long into the future.
To paraphrase the first lady’s challenge, our young people deserve this chance, they should not hesitate to take it and we must encourage them to do so.
Carola McGiffert is the president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to strengthen US-China relations through Mandarin language learning and study abroad.
This op-ed was first published in Roll Call, April 2, 2014.