Michelle Obama 100k strongMichelle Obama captivated an audience at Howard University this morning in talking about the importance of study abroad. The First Lady’s speech was scheduled as part of President Hu’s State Visit at the White House and served to renew the Administration’s commitment to the “100,000 Strong” initiative that President Obama announced during his trip to China in November 2009.  If you missed the speech, you can watch it in its entirety here.

In encouraging all students to break out of their comfort zone and study abroad, she said,

...studying abroad isn’t just an important part of a well-rounded educational experience. It’s also becoming increasingly important for success in the modern global economy. Getting ahead in today’s workplaces isn’t just about the skills you bring from the classroom. It’s also about the experience you have with the world beyond our borders -- with people, and languages, and cultures that are very different from our own.

But let’s be clear: studying in countries like China is about so much more than just improving your own prospects in the global market.

The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually helping to make America stronger.

NAFSA commends the Administration for setting this goal to expand study abroad to China and couldn’t agree more with the First Lady’s statements this morning about how essential study abroad is today. We share the First Lady’s view that opportunities of study abroad are important not only for the significant educational experience they provide, but also for their ability to bring people and nations together. These values are constant regardless of where in the world that study abroad opportunity takes place, whether in China, Indonesia, England, Egypt, South Africa, or even Cuba.

When it comes to China, a strong global leader and one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, the need for more Americans to speak the language and understand Chinese culture is absolutely critical. The number of Chinese students who study in the United States is ten times higher than the number of Americans who study there. Given China’s growing role in the world, it is clear that many more U.S. students should have the opportunity to study there, learn Mandarin, and take in the rich culture and history that make China the country it is today.

In addition to encouraging institutions to pledge their efforts to double study abroad in China as part of Secretary Clinton’s “100,000 Strong” Challenge, NAFSA has also been engaged with a project of the U.S.- China Education Trust (USCET), called the USCET Student Leaders Exchange. As part of the Obama Administration’s “100,000 Strong” initiative, USCET awarded grants to four institutions -  University of Arkansas, the University of North Alabama, Boston University, and San Francisco State University - to amplify existing programs by challenging institutions to use the grants to inspire other commitments on campus to increase study abroad to China. What is so dynamic about this project is how the grants have supported study abroad offices at those institutions in leveraging campus-wide partnerships and other university commitments.

By offering a competitive grant process in which institutions were asked to grow study abroad beyond what would otherwise have been possible, USCET has helped create new opportunities for students to study abroad in China. We hope this model  will be replicated as the “100,000 Strong” initiative continues to gain momentum, so the initiative can serve as a catalyst for a broader national movement to greatly increase study abroad by American students at locations all around the world.

One crucial element is clear: all of this must start with leadership at the top. Not only leadership at the White House, the Department of State, or the Department of Education, but also at colleges and universities across the country. When introducing the First Lady this morning, the President of Howard University, Dr. Sidney Ribeau, said that every Howard student should have an international experience. We urge university presidents across the country to embrace similar goals for the education of the students on their campuses.