There is a video tucked away on YouTube where Michelle Obama addresses students at Howard University about the importance of studying abroad as part of the "100,000 Strong Initiative." The initiative supports American students who want to study abroad in China and is backed by both the U.S. and Chinese governments.
In the speech the First Lady encouraged young people to go East.
"Through the miracles of modern technology our world is now increasingly international..." Mrs. Obama told the students. "And as a consequence 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."
Little surprise that the 100,000 Strong Initiative has yet to pick up steam. Although the number is on the rise, only one-third of Americans have a passport. True that America is a supersize-sized country, but the world is becoming increasingly flat. Being bi-lingual, especially in Spanish or Chinese, and having international work experience is worth gold. That is the reason why most college kids in the Asia-Pacific region would pay high prices to have the chance to go West.
The Chinese kids on this side of the continent get it, including my own students. Long before graduation, many say they are committed to continuing their studies in the U.S. and would give anything for a chance to study abroad in the West.
They will always feel an allegiance for their homeland. Hong Kong is their base of family, friends and familiarity. They prefer fried rice over hamburgers and fries, and K-pop and Cantopop over the MTV fare. But they also understand the immense value in gaining an educational and cultural experience from other countries, namely the U.S.
After a recent visit to several college campuses in the U.S., these kids decided that they were going to study abroad. Forget about short trips and exchanges, they wanted to go the distance.
The same is not necessarily true when it comes to their counterparts in the U.S. A friend who is a veteran university administrator said that there was a decline of undergraduates interested in studying abroad in China. Some places do get it. For example, Hunter College as part of the City University of New York, launched a Chinese Language Flagship program where undergraduates gain fluency in Chinese and even have an internship in China. These kids will be ahead of the curve.
The University of Maryland, which has a Chinese American president Wallace Loh, has pushed the "100,000 Strong Initiative," and started an office just to build educational opportunities and exchange with China.
Here in Hong Kong most universities already push their students abroad by heavily subsidizing semesters abroad with prestigious universities including Yale and Harvard. Smaller liberal arts universities such as my own are actively looking to expand the exchange opportunities and footprint.
The Obama administration should continue to fuel and fund the "100,000 Strong Initiative," and keep driving the message home of the importance of sampling studying in China to American college kids. Specifically get a passport. Take out the passport and put it to use. Only then can the knowledge exchange for this younger generation be strengthened to the advantage of Americans.