When Raven Willis approached the podium at US Ambassador Max Baucus’residence Feb. 6, she was clearly the greenest speaker, but it was her experiences that resonated the loudest with the audience. Willis attended a high school in one of Atlanta’s underserved neighborhoods, yet she was able to begin studying Mandarin in her teens and volunteer with migrant workers’ children at the Dandelion School in Beijing on an all-expenses paid trip. Willis has since graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth and returned to Beijing to teach English.
Willis is now one of the first student ambassadors to emerge from the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to deepening the relationship between the US and China by making language learning and study abroad programs available to more Americans. Willis shared her experiences with 150 leaders invested in furthering educational exchanges, all gathered to celebrate a new cooperation between AmCham China and the 100,000 Strong Foundation.
“This partnership reflects the critical importance of people-to-people exchange as well as the strategic significance of continuing to promote engagement and awareness of China in American youth through education,” said AmCham China Chairman James Zimmerman in his own remarks to the crowd.
The next step is for business leaders to act. The foundation began with government support on both sides, and continued with signature partnerships from organizations like Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA), which sponsored Raven’s trip. For the next phase, the foundation is looking to American and Chinese businesses to help fill in the financial and opportunity gaps. What exactly this will look like – perhaps scholarships or internships – depends on the business community here in China. And no other business community understands the importance of the US-China relationship like AmCham China.
“We’re very excited to be working with AmCham China to extend our platform to the business community as well as our presence in Beijing,” said 100,000 Strong Foundation President Carola McGiffert. “By more closely associating with AmCham China, we hope to promote to its members the foundation’s strategic and economic importance with respect to US-China relations, both present and future.”
IT TAKES TWO
The foundation takes its name from a 2009 initiative from President Barack Obama to have more American students study in China. With the 100,000 goal achieved last year, the larger mission remains: strengthen the US-China relationship by giving a new generation of students the opportunity to engage with China on a deeper level.
Both the US and Chinese governments have shown support at every step, and this mission aligns with the Chinese government’s own goal to host 500,000 international students by 2020. After Obama’s announcement, then-Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and Vice Premier Liu Yandong jointly launched the 100,000 Strong Initiative in 2010. The Chinese government has since offered over 30,000 scholarships to US students, including 10,000 for high school students to attend summer programs in China.
The initiative stayed within the US State Department until in 2013, when it spun out as a bipartisan nonprofit organization, shedding the “initiative” label to become an independent foundation. During this transition, big-name supporters signed on, from former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman to musician will.i.am. AmCham China members have also been active from the first stages: member Liz Haenle of SAGE Worldwide currently sits on the board, and AmCham China Vice Chair Lin Gao is a senior advisor.
Madam Li Xiaolin was also in attendance at the Feb. 6 celebration. President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Li is looking to work with 100,000 Strong to fund students, teachers and administrators on short-term study tours of China, another way to spark interest amongst those who would never come to China normally, such as community college students.
With such strong supporters, 100,000 Strong has been met with a lot of interest from potential partners, nearly overwhelming the foundation’s Washington, D.C. staff of four full-timers and two researchers. McGiffert and her team have developed a very rigorous application procedure to compensate for this. With such high-level supporters, the foundation can’t risk a partner that would hurt its reputation.
“They’re all great organizations, but in order to differentiate, we looked at which ones were doing the most to not only increase their numbers, but to also reach diverse students,” McGiffert said.
The newest development for the foundation is the arrival of the student ambassadors. Previously, the organization was operating on a strategic, high-ranking government level to bring on supporters. But now with the student ambassadors (“200 of the most dedicated young people I’ve ever met”), the foundation can go to companies and governments and show the real impact of these programs. These ambassadors, ages 14 to 26, need support in taking their next steps and putting their opportunities to good use.
The foundation gives them a set list of suggested actions, such as starting an on-campus China club or writing a letter to a member of Congress about their experiences. They also provide advice to ambassadors on how to write a China blog or get a job in a think-tank – essentially, how to take the next step into becoming a leader in US-China relations. Already, the ambassadors are putting their own spin on it. For example, one student in New York studied Mandarin through a 100,000 Strong partner and is now organizing a Chinese modern film festival. To further support this, the foundation connected her to the Asia Society to help put on the event.
“In interacting with the students, it has become even more clear to us that the direction we’re going in is to become a grant-making organization, not just a platform,” McGiffert said. This year, the big priority – and one of the reasons McGiffert is excited about the AmCham China partnership – is a major fundraising campaign to provide scholarships and financial aid as well as stand up new programs.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
AmCham China is now 100,000 Strong’s “home away from home,” as McGiffert put it. While members such as Gao and Haenle are offering advisory support, the general membership needs to take the next step. This could be in the form of scholarships or internships. Companies can set up a lasting program to bring over American students from a broad range of backgrounds, give them opportunities to engage with China they wouldn’t have normally and change their lives forever. Then when the student ambassadors speak about their experiences, they can proudly wear the shirt or emblem of the company that gave them that first chance. The foundation would work as a matchmaker between companies and programs such as APSA. Essentially, 100,000 Strong becomes the headhunter for finding bright, motivated young people with an interest in China.
For organizations that can’t offer internships, the foundation is still looking for monetary contributions as it hopes to move further into grant making. It wants not just to offer the right connections for its partners but to become a major financial supporter of them.
One AmCham China member has already started to do just this: Signature Wines is donating to APSA the proceeds from any subscription placed by AmCham China members. But there needs to be far more participation to make this collaboration meaningful.
“These young people are going to be the next generation of leaders,” McGiffert said. “They are just going to be so much better prepared to work with Chinese counterparts, whether they’re competing or collaborating.”