Diplomacy is often confined to high-level talks between world leaders. But improving relations between the United States and China needs a grassroots approach, and students will play a vital role in bringing the two global powers closer together. That was the message at a recent event held at American University’s School of International Service (SIS).
This was the first annual 100,000 Strong Foundation conference to enhance U.S.-China relations through study abroad. The well-attended event featured diplomats, university officials and students, business executives, and nonprofit leaders. Closing out the conference was a special appearance from China Vice Premier Liu Yandong. “State-to-state relations are very dependent on people-to-people exchanges,” she said. “Investing in youth is to invest in the future.”
American University President Neil Kerwin kicked off the event and mentioned AU’s role in promoting student-to-student exchange. “As we speak, 22 of our students are studying in China. Since 2010, we’ve had 148 students from American University studying in China,” he said, adding that China is the largest contributor of international students to AU.
“We want our students going abroad, studying other cultures,” said SIS Dean James Goldgeier.
Several speakers emphasized the immense value of cross-cultural exchange between the two countries. Norman Francis, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, compared sending more American students to China to President John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon. “We are involved in something in human capital and in human dimensions that I don’t think we fully realize,” Francis said.
Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, described the need for first-hand learning in another country. “We have to learn how the world works. Not by watching on TV, not by looking at it through binoculars, but by getting out there and doing things, meeting people, and studying,” he said.
“This is not just nice-to-do stuff. This is not just feel good stuff,” Russel said. “[What] keeps governments from going overboard in one direction or another are ties between the people.”
The Foundation’s Mission
100,000 Strong started out as a State Department initiative announced by President Barack Obama in 2009. In January 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled the 100,000 Strong Foundation, which is housed at SIS. The conference, co-hosted by AU, occurred in conjunction with the fourth annual U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.
Travis Tanner, director of the 100,000 Strong Project at the School of International Service, believes there’s a broader strategic purpose to promoting study abroad. “The U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential bilateral relationship that exists today,” he said in an interview. “If you look at global health issues, terrorism issues, climate change and environment, these are issues that our countries will have to collaborate on.”
With the goal of getting 100,000 American students studying in China, Chinese students already had a sizable head start. According to some estimates, 200,000 Chinese students come to school in the United States, while fewer than 27,000 Americans are studying in China.
“The obstacles are complex and language remains a significant barrier, which is one explanation for why more Americans study abroad in the U.K. than anywhere else in the world,” said Leeanne Dunsmore, associate dean for program development and graduate admissions at SIS. “Chinese language programs are increasing in the U.S., which will certainly fuel demand for study abroad in China.”
The cost of studying in China can be a deterrent, Tanner said. And there are still cultural barriers and parental concerns, with some mothers or fathers more likely to have studied in Western Europe.
Reaching New Students
The 100,000 Strong Foundation aims to attract a more diverse group of students than typically study in China. This includes community college students, often with fewer economic resources at their disposal.
There was a strong presence of historically black colleges and universities at the conference. Xavier University of Louisiana is a historically black college, and Francis noted that the number of students taking Mandarin at his school has doubled. “These young people are eager. Eager to see the world, and eager to make a contribution,” he said.
AU Students Abroad
Alyssa Briggs was a student ambassador at the 100,000 Strong Foundation event. She’s a senior international studies major at AU, and she previously studied abroad in Beijing. Briggs admits that she experienced culture shock living in China. But she highlights the people she encountered and learned from. “I got to know my Chinese teachers, and they’re some of the most incredible people I have ever met,” Briggs said.
Charles Chen was part of a student panel at the conference giving testimonials about living in China. Now an AU junior studying business administration and international relations, he’s lived part of his life in China and part of his life in the United States. In his testimonial, he mentioned how he’s felt like a foreigner in both countries. “The most striking fact that I learned is I am actually not American, I am actually not Chinese,” he said. “But I learned that the two cultures are really open to actually teach me what the culture is.”
Chen’s own experience illustrates the benefits of closer U.S.-China ties, and even holding conferences like this one. He ran into his former high school principal in Shanghai, Xiangdong Xu, who just happened to be in attendance at the 100,000 Strong Foundation conference. “I’m really, really happy to see him right here,” he said.