As president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, my job is to increase the number of Americans who study Mandarin and study abroad in China. Why? Because the US-China relationship is the most consequential in the world. The state of global security -- whether in terms of climate change or global economic stability; nuclear weapons or public health -- depends on how well the US and China collaborate. We must do everything we can to get it right.
Getting this critical relationship right means investing in our next generation of leaders and workers to ensure that they are China-savvy, that they have a meaningful understanding of China and are prepared to compete and collaborate with Chinese counterparts. And we need ALL our young people involved.
According to the Institute for International Education (IIE), the typical American study abroad student is female, Caucasian, enrolled in a four-year college or university, and from the upper socio-economic class. We encourage those students to go to China in greater and greater numbers. Full disclosure: I fit that profile when I studied in China many years ago.
But with a population that is approximately 40 percent non-white and with 45 percent of our undergraduates enrolled in two-year community colleges -- almost half our future workforce! -- clearly this paradigm must shift. In fact, the Pew Foundation predicts that non-white Americans will become the majority by 2050, if not earlier.
Minority students typically do not have the opportunity to study a language much less study abroad. They face financial barriers, to be sure, but also cultural ones. For a young person who has never left his or her zip code, much less flown on a plane, going overseas is a daunting consideration. Going to China is beyond consideration.
This puts US government and business at a disadvantage. The US Foreign Service, our diplomatic core, struggles to recruit minorities in part because so few study international affairs in college. Today, African Americans and Latinos comprise only five percent each of the Foreign Service (compared to 13 percent and 17 percent of the US population, respectively).
American companies genuinely committed to diversifying their workforce find it difficult to identify minorities with the language skills to manage their growing international operations. In 2013, only six Fortune 500 CEOs were black, eight Latino and eight Asian, accounting for just 1.6 percent each.
Every profession is affected. From boardrooms to editorial boards, from the Ivory Tower of academia to the campaign trail, the dearth of minorities in leadership positions across the United States is glaring.
When minority students do study abroad, it is typically to regions where they have a cultural affinity. Latino students study in Latin America or Spain, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) reports that African-American students are typically drawn to Africa or countries with significant black populations, like Brazil. These experiences are invaluable, to be sure. But with China now the second largest economy in the world (soon to overtake the US as the largest) and our fastest growing trade partner, understanding China may soon become a requirement for students entering the workforce.
Diversifying study abroad to China is a major priority for the 100,000 Strong Foundation. That is why we are proud to include organizations like Thurgood Marshall the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) and Community Colleges for International Development (CCID) among our strategic partners.
I had the pleasure of traveling with Johnny Taylor and Dr. Joyce Payne, president and founder of TMCF, respectively, to China last week. Our goal was to start to develop ties between the 47 public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) represented by TMCF so that more African Americans, particularly those from underserved communities, can come to China to learn Mandarin and better understand Chinese culture. The response from our Chinese friends and partners was overwhelmingly positive, and TMCF hopes to have its first contingent of students in China on full scholarships in the summer of 2015.
This is not about charity to low-income minority students. This is not even philanthropy. It is, in the new vocabulary, impact investing. It is an investment in America's future. As a nation, we cannot afford having only a small slice of the population understand China. We must make a strategic investment in our young people if we are going to get the US-China relationship right both now and in the future.