Owing to the development of U.S.-China relations over the last four decades, more than 275,000 Chinese students attend American colleges and universities and 15,000 American students study at institutions of higher education in China yearly. Bilateral student exchanges exist in many disciplines – from accounting and business to medicine, music and engineering. Our countries host numerous exchanges in trade, business, economics and government. Those focusing on women and their special role in governance are fewer and more recent.
In June of last year speaking before the seventh US-China Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, the highest-ranking woman in the Chinese government, encouraged both countries to explore new possibilities for educational exchange with women as the focal point.
She said, “I believe that if we can release the full potential of ‘she power’ in China and the U.S., it will provide new impetus to … people-to-people exchanges and to … building of (a) new type of major country relations between our … countries.”
Vice Premier Liu also observed that women’s development has been “an important sign of the progress of human civilization.” Reflecting on the early 20th century, two examples of other prominent women leaders that changed Chinese, American and world history come to mind – Soong Qing Ling, the second wife of Sun Yat-sen (the first President of the Republic of China), and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Madame Soong graduated from Wesleyan College in Georgia – one of the “seven sisters of the south” – and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended Allenswood Academy in the UK. Both institutions were dedicated to women’s education and cultivating independent, progressive thinking.
Madame Soong devoted her life to liberating the people of China and gaining rights for women. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, she became Vice President of China, and just prior to her passing in 1981, the honorary President of the PRC. She is often referred to as the mother of modern China. Eleanor Roosevelt became one of the most visible social activists of her generation, advocating for reform, giving visibility to movements for workers’ rights, women’s rights and civil rights. President Truman later called her the “The First Lady of the World.”
The work and ideals of these remarkable women continue today. In 1982, the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation was established to promote friendly international relations and safeguard world peace. The Roosevelt Institute was established in 1987 to carry forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by developing progressive ideas and bold leadership in the service of restoring America’s promise of opportunity for all.
Their lives, perspectives and accomplishments encourage us to do more with an eye to this still young, though often troubled bilateral relationship and the greater role women should play in its development.
Lost in the pages of the history of U.S.-China relations, the first official delegation of Chinese students came to the United States in 1872. The program’s goal was to expose Chinese students (at the time 30 all male teenagers) to American education, live with American families, and to ultimately train them to work as diplomats and technical advisors to the government. The Qing dynasty ended the exchange program a short nine years later due to rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. Before the program ended, approximately 120 students took part.
Sino-U.S. relations has changed dramatically since that time with both countries enjoying unprecedented access, especially since the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States in 1979. Growing international rivalry and the complexities brought on by increasingly interdependent economies, however, often challenge this fragile relationship which has yet to celebrate its 40th birthday. The future of the world order in large part rests on the trajectory of Sino-U.S. relations – what we do to influence its direction in ever-more positive and productive ways is paramount.
The aim of NCSD’s China America Education Fund is to establish demonstration projects in education that will provide Chinese and American undergraduate women the opportunity to form lasting bonds of friendship, respect and communication and the skills to assume leadership roles supporting the future of Sino-U.S. relations.
Madam Soong, Eleanor Roosevelt, and today Chinese Vice Premier Liu serve as role models and examples of strong and enduring leadership for women the world over. NCSD, working closely with the Ministry of Education in China and academic institutions in both countries, established the China America Education Fund (CAE Fund) to expand educational opportunities and exchanges for women and to bring new talents, perspectives, and leadership to the U.S.-China relationship.
To achieve this genuinely international perspective and outcome, NCSD and participating institutions will uphold the ideals of a liberal arts education and all that it has to offer students in both countries. Liberal arts education in America takes many forms and offers many avenues for students to pursue. Its popularity is gaining interest in Asia and most recently among Chinese students looking to study in the United States.
According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, liberal arts education is:
An approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal arts education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.
Based on this foundation and in the true spirit of liberal arts education, Chinese and American undergraduate women will gain a better understanding of their respective languages, cultures, history, political and economic systems through CAE Fund programs of cooperation.
The second and integral dimension of this approach will be to expose students to today’s women leaders in government, law, business and other disciplines in Washington, D.C. and to intensive instruction in leadership skills and dynamics in cooperation with area universities. This foundation will support and inform their perspectives for their service as potential future leaders in their respective societies.