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Foreign Policy

Building Bridges: One Student At A Time

Mar 27 , 2014

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, her mother and her daughters, Malia and Sasha, recently enjoyed spring break in China. This trip is valuable for us all. 

Tom Watkins

The First Lady understands that the relationship between the U.S. and China is the most important bilateral connection in the world today. Building people-to-people connections is an important strategy to cement this bond – not simply between our governments, but our people as well. The Obama presence in China is sending a message that they too can make this educational study abroad connection. 

Mrs. Obama said, “In reality, study abroad is vital for people who want to participate in a world in which countries and economies are increasingly interconnected.” 

Far too many in the West are dangerously ignorant about China’s history, language, government, culture and language. Approximately 200,000 Chinese students are studying in institutions in the United States, according to the State Department. Only 20,000 American students are studying in China. This statistic does not bode well for our future. 

It is important that we constantly seek ways to build cultural, educational, economic and people-to-people bridges between China and the United States as we hold the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century in our collective hands, impacting our respective citizens and all of humanity. 

The China Daily reported that First Lady Michelle Obama avidly encouraged students to study abroad in “a new era of citizen diplomacy.” “As the Chinese saying goes: It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books,” she told more than 100 students when delivering a 15-minute speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University.  The First Lady continued, “We believe that relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders. They’re about relationships between people, particularly our young people,” said the Harvard-educated lawyer from a working-class family.

There are two important initiatives that people on both sides of the ocean need to know more about:

  • The 21st Century Schwartzman Endowment
  • 100,000 Strong Foundation 

American financier Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of private equity firm Blackstone, established an international scholarship program in China endowed with $300 million (¥1.8 billion).  The program is the largest-ever internationally funded philanthropic effort in China’s history soon to support 200 scholars a year for study in China.  Forty-five percent of the students will hail from the United States; another 20 percent will come from China with the remaining students representing Europe, South Korea, Japan, and India.  The 21st century Schwartzman Endowment emulates the world famous Rhodes Scholarship program established in 1902.

The New York Times reported, “The program’s creation underlines the tremendous importance of China and its market to Wall Street financiers and corporate leaders, who have become increasingly anxious as security and economic frictions grow between China and the West … a third of the endowment comes from Mr. Schwarzman’s personal fortune, a third comes from donors and the remaining $100 million is expected to be raised by the end of this year.”

Clearly the center of the economic and geo-political world is shifting in China’s direction and these scholarships to study in and around China bodes well not only for China but for all humanity. 

According to the 100,000 Strong Foundation, it is their goal to encourage students of diverse backgrounds from across the country to learn Mandarin and study in China. The Foundation believes that its best ambassadors are the American students who have studied in China and learned about the Chinese culture, language and people first hand. Here is how some of these student ambassadors describe what they gained from their China study abroad experience. The president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, Carola McGiffert, said recently that a lack of knowledge about China among students in the United States stopped some from considering China as an option for study abroad.

The Chinese economy has been on steroids, growing at an annual rate of 10 percent the much of the previous three decades. With its 267 million children under the age of 14 (approaching the size of America’s entire population), China has a near-endless supply of students to educate, as well as limited educational slots at home to accommodate them.

Thoughtful American policymakers are attempting to ride the China wave by marketing their state as the “brain bank” of the world, aggressively recruiting the best students to our state and helping them stay to build a new life and new opportunities. As we continue this journey with a rising China, we will need leaders of great wisdom to make sure China’s rise does not come at our demise. Building people-to-people bridges between China and America bodes well for our collective future.

Tom Watkins Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for over three decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China. He is advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation and Detroit Chinese Business Association. He can be reached at or follow Watkins on Twitter @tdwatkins88.

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