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100,000 Strong Initiative Gets Boost from Chicago Ties to China

US students learning Chinese

US students learning Chinese

The Advisory Committee of President Barack Obama's 100,000 Strong Initiative, which encourages Americans to study in China, is led by former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and departing Chicago Mayor. Richard Daley, who's been mayor for 22 years, led Chicago in engaging China and promoting cross-cultural programs. His efforts earned the Windy City the distinction of being the "the most China-friendly city" when President Hu Jintao visited in January. That distinction is helping Chicago support President Obama's goal.

It may not sound like an American classroom, or look like a traditional American classroom, but these students from the Midwest state of Illinois are getting an education on the Far East.

"For young students, it's a very smart investment to learn Chinese I think," noted Wen Ya Lu, one of several language instructors at Walter Payton College Preparatory School in Chicago. Chinese language classes have been a regular part of the curriculum in the Chicago Public School system for more than a decade.

"We believe we are one of the first, several schools, that started or promote Chinese language learning," Wen Ya Lu added.

William Spence is co-chairman of the Chicago Sister Cities China Committee. He says language classes are one way departing Mayor Richard Daley has engaged China, America's second largest trading partner.

"The mayor has initiated the largest public school Mandarin program in the United States. There are 42 schools in Chicago that are teaching Mandarin to more than 12,000 students," said Spence.

Chinese President Hu Jintao recognized those efforts in January. During his state visit, he spent time in Chicago, and visited with students and faculty at Walter Payton.

"That probably had more to do with raising the level of awareness of Chicago in China than any other single act," Spence added.

The Shanghai Expo in 2010 also helped raise the level of awareness of America in China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed the State Department to participate in the Expo by creating an American Pavilion. She says learning Chinese paid off for the Americans who worked at the pavilion.

"I think part of the reason we were the second-most visited pavilion was because the Chinese were just thrilled to come meet these young Americans who were speaking their language," Clinton noted. "And they were asking all kinds of questions, and the young Americans were asking about their pronunciation, and it was just a fabulous moment. And we need more of that."

Secretary Clinton asked Mayor Daley to co-chair the Advisory Committee to the 100,000 Strong Initiative. The initiative is a goal set by President Barack Obama in 2009 to encourage 100,000 American students to study abroad in China. The program's success depends on more institutions nationwide following Chicago's lead.

"We understand that about 15 other American cities had picked up on the Chicago model for putting the Mandarin program in place in the public schools," Spence said.

Even with those language programs, the U.S. State Department says there are 600 times more Chinese students studying English than Americans studying Mandarin. The State Department also says ten times more Chinese students study in the United States than Americans in China. The 100,000 Strong Initiative is intended to begin bridging that gap.