100,000 Strong InitiativeAt the 2011 NAFSA Annual Conference in Vancouver, the momentum for the 100,000 Strong Initiative was clear as speakers and attendees highlighted the important relationship between the United States and China and discussed innovative ways to leverage funding to send students abroad.

The 100,000 Strong Initiative, announced last May by the Obama Administration, proposes to send 100,000 American students to study in China over the next four years by leveraging corporate, institutional, and other sources of funding. Carola McGiffert, director of the 100,000 Strong Initiative at the U.S. Department of State, noted that the U.S.-China relationship is among the most important in the world, with China playing an ever-increasing role in strategic geo-political affairs. “This makes the need to prepare American students for a world in which China plays an essential role all the more important,” she said. “Despite our differences, there is an opportunity here for mutual understanding.” Since January, the 100,000 Strong Initiative has raised nearly $7 million dollars in funding from the private sector, with a goal of raising $23 million over the next four years. McGiffert applauded this robust start and challenged educators to continue to leverage funds raised under the purview of the Initiative within their schools and communities.

Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, president and CEO of the U.S.-China Education Trust (USCET) and this year’s recipient of NAFSA’s prestigious Cassandra Pyle Award, issued a charge during the NAFSA conference urging institutions to think about leveraging funds for the 100,000 Strong Initiative in a manner similar to that envisioned in the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, in an effort to support as many students as possible in their quest to study abroad. Last fall USCET launched the Student Leaders Exchange Program, which provides travel grants to American universities to help them encourage more students to study abroad in China under the auspices of the 100,000 Strong Initiative.

Information about individual schools seeking funding through the 100,000 Strong Initiative was revealed during a session entitled “The 100,000 Strong Initiative in Practice: Leveraging U.S. Government Support to Expand Chinese Studies Programs.” Dr. Chunsheng Zhang, vice provost for international affairs at the University of North Alabama, spoke about how he has leveraged travel funds from the USCET by working with corporations in the local community, the different schools within the university, and even by holding a BBQ fundraising event which he used to masterfully engage more students and faculty from the campus. The result: After starting with $20,000 in funds from USCET, Dr. Zhang managed to raise over $83,000, which will enable 26 American students to study and perform service learning in China for one month this summer.

Dr. Kassie Freeman, vice president of academic and student affairs at the Southern University System (the only historically black system of its kind in the United States), spoke about the barriers facing minority-serving institutions when it comes to study abroad. Although many minority students face financial obstacles to studying abroad, as they are already often the first generation in their families to attend college, Dr. Freeman noted that this is often not the biggest barrier. Fear of the unknown also plays a large role, due to the fact that minorities are proportionately far underrepresented in study abroad and institutional support for study abroad is currently limited. Increasing the number of minority students who study abroad is one of the goals of the 100,000 Strong Initiative.

Ellen Sayles, assistant dean of studies director at Oberlin College, described Oberlin’s longstanding history of engagement with China - the institution has been sending its students to China for over 100 years. She explained how Oberlin plans to use funds from the 100,000 Strong Initiative to augment Oberlin’s current study abroad framework and China engagement opportunities already in place at the school. Areas of expansion include the environment and green technology, a music exchange program, and corporate internships.

The stories and insights of these institutions, as they leverage funding through the 100,000 Strong Initiative to open the doors of study abroad to more students, illustrates the potential of a partnership between government, the higher education community, and the private sector to identify needs and find solutions – and to make study abroad possible for dramatically greater numbers of students in the future.