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100,000 Strong Initiative: Building a better future for US-China relations

By the end of 2014, hopefully a total of 100,000 American students will have traveled across the Pacific Ocean to study in China since 2010, an unprecedented number pushed by the US government through its 100,000 Strong Initiative, an effort to dramatically increase the number and diversity of American students in China. If successful, the initiative would be a great feat given the current economic climate that has seen serious cuts to educational funding and a subdued interest in study abroad in the US.

“We are confident we will reach - and perhaps surpass – the 100,000 mark by the end of 2014,” said Carola McGiffert, president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, which has been leading the national movement of strengthening the US-China relations through study abroad and Chinese learning since 2013.

The initiative, first announced by President Barack Obama in 2009, was officially launched in May 2010 by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton together with the then Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong in Beijing. Though it is started by the US Department of State, it is more or less a “US-China bilateral effort”, as McGiffert put it. China has been very supportive of the initiative and offered a total of 20,000 scholarships for the US students to study in China.

Sources said that in 2013 alone, about 5,500 US students came to China on Chinese government scholarships, accounting for more than 25% of all American students who came to China last year, which was about 20,000, according to the State Department.

There are currently 12 times more Chinese students studying in the US than Americans in China. The gap deepened greatly over the years simply because the number of Chinese students has been snowballing yet the US numbers, small to begin with, only managed to maintain a single-digit increase rate since the big surge in 2007/08, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). And the big jump in 2008 was caused by the Olympics. The interest in China waned after the Games and the ensuing financial crisis further complicated the picture.

File photo of US students in China met at the Golden Bridges courtyard for a Project Pengyou event in Beijing in July 2013. Project Pengyou is the alumni network for the 100,000 Strong Initiative. Photo: Courtesy of Project Pengyou


More than just a number

According to the latest number available from the Chinese government in terms of student visas, 68,000 Americans have studied in China from 2011 to 2013. Whether or not the goal of reaching 100,000 can be accomplished by the end of 2014 remains to be seen. The Chinese tend to judge the success of a program by looking at numbers. However, in the case of 100,000 Strong Initiative, it is not just the numbers that count.

“It (100,000) is meant to be a concrete goal, but also an inspirational idea,” said Elizabeth Knup, China representative of Ford Foundation, a major supporter of the Initiative. “The objective (of the initiative) is not just the figure of 100, 000, but the diversity.”

”The US-China relationship is not just between the elite people, but all the people. We should have as many Americans as possible from all walks of life to spend some time in China and understand China,” Knup pointed out. And in this particular aspect, the Initiative has been very successful.

One of the organizations that contributed to the success is Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA), a non-profit organization that helps deserving students from American public high schools to come to China. Its summer program has sent over 250 students on full scholarship to China since 2008. The number will grow to about 300 by the summer of 2014, and the program has also expanded from Beijing to Shanghai.

Mike Dardzinski, a Yale Graduate who is running his own company Zihua Group in China and one of the founders of the APSA, said the kids selected by the APSA are all from such a background that they might not even have an opportunity to go outside of America otherwise, let alone come all the way to China. He considers the APSA’s work as “icing on the cake”. “Studying abroad is not just for rich people,” Mike stressed.

In 2013, the APSA started a new New York/Beijing Dance Initiative that sends dance students from New York City public high schools to the Beijing Dance Academy to learn traditional Chinese dances. In 2014, 10 students came to Beijing and studied for ten days. By the end of their short visit, the students managed to put together a splendid Chinese dance performance including one dance number that they choreographed together with the students of the Beijing Dance Academy with whom they had become close friends.

The 10 APSA dancers from New York posing in front of the gate of Beijing Dance Academy. Photo: Courtesy of APSA

The students, the youngest being 14 years old, all said they thoroughly enjoyed their China visit and that they would like to continue studying Chinese and come back to China if they can. “I believe that they will,” said Sandra Jeffery, executive director of the APSA. “Once they saw how great China is and leant that they can enjoy themselves in China, they will actively pursue it in the future.”

And that is what the Initiative aims to achieve: more people to get to know China and commit themselves to knowing more about China, so that eventually they will be able to contribute to a better relationship between the two countries.

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