The 100,000 Strong Foundation – aiming to get more US students to study in China for a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and history – is nurturing the next generation of American and Chinese youth on the grassroots level as a way to strengthen the US-China relationship. Through a first-hand experience on the ground, American students not only are the “best messengers” of the US mission in a bilateral relationship but are also prepared to become future leaders.

By Blessing Waung

When President Barack Obama visited Shanghai on his first trip to China in the early days of his presidency in 2009, he faced myriad issues pertaining to the US-China relationship. However, he wanted to come to China with something positive, despite areas of disagreement.

There, he vowed in front of then- President Hu Jintao that by the year 2014 America would aim to send 100,000 of its students to live and study in China, calling it the 100,000 Strong Initiative.

According to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was involved in the 100K Strong Initiative, the goal was to launch a “permanent, independent, nonprofit organization focused not only on our goal of 100,000 American students in China, but on continuing the strength of student exchanges for years to come.”

The year has come and gone, and the US has officially surpassed its numeric goal. Does that mean the work stops there?

Carola McGiffert, President of The 100,000 Strong Foundation, says no. Though the eponymous number was the Obama administration’s original aim, the foundation reached numeric goal in July, according to student visa statistics of the Chinese government. However, she believes the organization still has more work to be done.

History in the Making

According to a 2014 report by the Institute of International Education, more than 274,000 students from China are currently studying in the United States, comprising 31 percent of the total international student population. India trails behind with 102,000 students.

“There’s a natural tendency for Chinese students to go to America,” says Robert Roche, past chairman of AmCham Shanghai and a member of AmCham Japan’s board of governors, is one of the 100,000 Strong Foundation’s advisory council members, which also includes such names as Rahm Emanuel, Jon Huntsman, Henry Tang and “The same natural tendency doesn’t exist for American students going to China.”

Carola McGiffert
Carola McGiffert

In comparison, China is the fifth most popular destination for American undergraduates to study abroad, trailing exclusively European destinations: the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France.

McGiffert, who visited China for the first time when she was a high school student at the famed Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC, believes in the foundation’s mission because of how transformative her experience in China was. To anyone she meets, she states that no relationship is as consequently as that of these two countries. She later went on to receive her master’s degree in Chinese studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Her cousin, Frances Fremont Smith, was one of the first-ever American teachers (post-WWII) to live and teach in China, in Changchun, a city in northeastern China. Originally having signed up for a two-year contract, her stay in China has now extended beyond 30 years.

“I hope students catch the bug,” Roche says. “A lot of people come to study for half a year, and it’s a nice memory they tuck away, but it’s the ones that get it that turn it into a career. One out of ten probably do that; if you convert 10 percent of those people, that’s 10,000 people committed to the [US-China] relationship.”

“Students are on the front lines of charting the future of our relationship” is one of the foundational quotes from Secretary Clinton, showing that the mission of the 100,000 Strong Foundation is focused on education, but is also a bilateral relationship of its own kind.

First Lady Michelle Obama also gave her support to the endeavor, stating that the organization “isn’t just about relationships between our governments and our presidents, it’s also about relationships between our people.”


Expanding a Pool of Talent

The foundation hopes that in addition to learning Chinese Mandarin American students will immerse themselves in the culture by creating friends with local people, instead of just staying within their comfort zones.

McGiffert vehemently disagrees with the idea of foreign-student dormitories, and was very excited to hear last year when she visited in September that Peking University is planning new dormitories to mix international students and local Chinese for the first time.

“Hopefully they’ll make some friends! I hope that’s a trend that will continue,” she says.

“There’s a possible positive trend in that China is really working to develop its own technical college sector based on the United States’ unique community college system,” McGiffert points out.

“There’s a lot of exchange now on the academic and administrative level that I’m hoping will evolve in some exchanges, because the Chinese want to learn from us,” she says. “There are Chinese going to community colleges in large numbers. We’re hoping that will start to have an effect.”

According to McGiffert, the demographic of students able to study abroad currently is typically Caucasian, from an upper-tier socioeconomic class, and enrolled in a four-year university or college. Though she will continue to encourage those students to study abroad in China, another segment of students she is focusing upon is those students who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to study in China.

“One of the stats that always stuns me is that almost half of American undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges. That’s half of our future workforce,” McGiffert says. “And yet, community colleges don’t typically have a lot of language offerings or study abroad. If they do, they’re not tailored toward the typical community college student. They often have families, jobs, and are not able for a variety of reasons to just take off for a semester to come study in China.”

“We’re really looking at ways in which we can expand the pool to make sure we’re getting the brightest students of all backgrounds,” McGiffert says.

An Exchange of Mutual Benefits

Additionally, though many American students think of study abroad as a privilege that occurs in their college years, many of their international peers have an experience abroad while still in high school. In fact, very few high school students in the US have the opportunity to travel outside of their state, let alone the country, so traveling to China is beyond the sphere of their imagination.

The Chinese government offered 30,000 scholarships for American students to come study on their campuses, anywhere from high school to short-term summer camps, all the way to postgraduate studies. McGiffert says that these efforts signify that China acknowledges it is also in their country’s best interests as well.

In 2012, when it was known that Secretary Clinton would be concluding her first term and leaving office, some of the initial corporate sponsors of the 100,000 Strong Initiative such as the Ford Foundation, Coca-Cola and Citigroup said they had invested much into it because they thought it was critical for their future hiring base. Thus the 100,000 strong foundation was born.

“There are tons of bilingual people, but there is a dearth of American bilingual people,” Roche says. “I think that America needs to be present overseas. We cannot rely on other countries to be the voice of America.

“The American experience is something that is a key ingredient to the world economy,” she says. “If we do not have bilingual people who can function at high levels in China, it will be a disadvantage to our country. It’s a competitive issue.”

As for how it affects companies in Hong Kong, Roche says it’s even more important because of the regional role that the city plays in China’s future. “It’s going to directly affect them because they’re going to have to hire the people,” she believes. “They are going to need not only people facing China but people in China.”

“China doesn’t let some of our students stay and work, because we don’t let their students stay and work,” she points out. “This reciprocity is tit for tat. But there are ways to deal with it.”

“[Our original] goal has been reached, but it’s not time to stop, it’s time to double down,” McGiffert says. “The Chinese government has set out a goal to see 500,000 foreign students on its campuses by 2020. They hope that a large proportion of those will be Americans and from Western Europe.”

“They see this as part of their strategy to make their universities world-class and to be listed on the top 10 universities in the world, and bringing American faculty and students to their campuses is a way to do that,” she notes. “There’s genuine commitment and interest on the Chinese side, we just need to do a better job on the US side.”

“It’s not just a feel-good, ‘Have a nice trip,’” McGiffert stresses. “It’s about building skill sets that will benefit the individual students in their professional and academic careers, but also America as a nation.”