05/14/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Study Abroad: The Path From the Sleepy Suburbs to the Global Stage

A gifted science student from Brazil sees his dream of studying engineering at a top university in the United States become a reality. A promising high school student from Paraguay almost abandons her goal of learning English, only to receive a life-changing opportunity to earn two degrees at a university in Kansas. A math whiz from Chile moves to California to earn a Ph.D. in aeronautics and eventually becomes a professor at one of the leading universities in Washington, D.C. And a young woman from the New Jersey suburbs finds her passion for history and politics come alive in the cafes and museums of Argentina and eventually dedicates her career to diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere.

What do all of these stories have in common? They demonstrate the transformative impact of student exchanges between the United States and our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, which have benefited tens of thousands of individuals and all of our countries over the years. These academic exchanges expand horizons and change lives (I should know; the Jersey girl in Argentina was me). But there are still far too many obstacles -- financial, social, and political -- that keep more young people from gaining the perspective and knowledge that a study-abroad experience can provide.

That is why President Obama's 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, which aims to substantially increase opportunities for student exchange between the United States and the countries of the Americas, is a priority. While visiting Chile in March 2011, President Obama delivered a major Western Hemisphere policy speech in which he announced that "the United States will work with partners in this region, including the private sector, to increase the number of U.S. students studying in the Western Hemisphere to 100,000 and the number of Latin American and Caribbean students studying in the United States to 100,000."

It is an ambitious goal. At the time of the announcement, fewer than 40,000 U.S. students studied in the region and 64,000 students from Latin America and the Caribbean were enrolled in American universities. To achieve the President's vision, we have teamed up with education experts, foundations, and leading companies to build relationships between higher education institutions that will enable more students to study abroad. Under 100,000 Strong, universities in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Peru are partnering with U.S. schools, including Northampton Community College, the University of Arizona, the University of North Texas, and the University of Rhode Island, to exchange more students.

Some states are already pushing the envelope for educational exchange programs. California sends more U.S. students to study abroad than any other state, specifically through University of California, Los Angeles and University of Southern California, which are among the top 10 U.S. institutions sending students abroad. The same is true for hosting international students. USC hosts more international students than any other U.S. higher education institution. For the United States as a whole to remain competitive in the 21st century, we must all model after their example and prepare young leaders for the global workforce.

The promise of the Americas rests on making investments today in the skills we will need tomorrow. We need researchers who will be able to collaborate with colleagues across borders, we need leaders who can develop inclusive policies, and we need entrepreneurs that are able to find new markets. All of these requirements can be met through study abroad. We need a generation that is not only able to virtually connect, but can build valuable connections. These are found only through local exposure, education, and experience. Today's economy demands students have more than just a degree when they graduate from college, but also the cultural and language skills to be effective. And as the Americas become increasingly characterized by stable democracies and strong economic growth, companies are seeking to hire global learners who can take advantage of the new economic possibilities.

To succeed, 100,000 Strong in the Americas must be a joint effort among governments, the private sector, and the academic community. We are already finding ways to expand educational opportunities for students and make study abroad more accessible for working or low-income students. We must ensure that curricula are flexible enough to allow students to incorporate international components into their studies, whether it's through conducting field work, taking classes, or interning. And finally, we must work with the private sector to invest in the skills and abilities needed by tomorrow's workforce.

The Western Hemisphere is a region of exponential growth and opportunity. We can make it into the most competitive region in the world, by developing a generation that is able to reach across borders to address challenges and find opportunities. Only by studying, learning and working together can we take advantage of the growing opportunities in our Hemisphere and prosper together.