An Interview with Travis Tanner
By: Kayla Blomquist
Travis Tanner, a speaker at the Tai Initiative’s upcoming conference in Denver, is the senior vice president and COO of the 100,000 Strong Foundation. The foundation works to strengthen US-China relations by increasing the number and diversity of American students learning Chinese and studying in China.
Mr. Tanner’s interest in China was first sparked by his own study abroad experience. So transformative was his time studying in China for just one year, he decided to stay for two additional years. From his experience, Mr. Tanner was struck by the increasing importance of China to the United States and developed a desire to contribute to a stronger, more productive US-China relationship.
Prior to working with the 100,000 Strong Foundation, Mr. Tanner served as senior project director at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and director of NBR’s Kenneth B. and Anne H.H. Pyle Center for Northeast Asian Studies. He has also worked as deputy director and assistant director of the Chinese Studies Program at the Nixon Center in Washington, DC, and he was a research assistant at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Mr. Tanner earned his master’s degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and his bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Utah. Additionally, Mr. Tanner is the co-editor of five recent volumes in the Strategic Asia series, published by NBR.
Leading up to the Tai Initiative’s second annual regional conference this May, we spoke with Mr. Tanner about his work with the 100,000 Strong Foundation. In our interview, we discussed the organization’s goals, challenges and the importance of American students studying China.
(TI) What does the 100,000 Strong Foundation seek to accomplish in China and in the United States?
(TT) The 100,000 Strong Foundation seeks to strengthen the US-China relationship by increasing the number and diversity of US students studying in China. Our country will need to collaborate with China on every major global challenge it faces in the coming years, including economic crises, climate change, nuclear proliferation, global health and transnational crime. Therefore, we need to ensure that our future workforce is China-savvy, with an appreciation for and an understanding of Chinese language, culture and people.
(TI) How does the work of 100,000 Strong complement or improve upon the traditional structure of student exchange?
(TT) Our mission complements an already robust student exchange framework that we are working to expand and strengthen. Our goal is to serve as a movement to foster students’ interest in becoming involved in these exchanges. It is critical that student exchange opportunities remain a priority for decision-makers in both countries. The 100,000 Strong Foundation seeks to increase both the number and the diversity of students involved in these opportunities. In order to achieve these goals, we collaborate with many other organizations, including 12 signature partner organizations, which include the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Mandarin Society, Americans Promoting Study Abroad, American University, Asia Society China Scholars, China Institute, Community Colleges for International Development, i.am.angel Foundation, Project Pengyou, Teach for China, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
(TI) What are some of the challenges you seek to overcome in reaching out to American communities?
(TT) There is broad understanding across the private sector, academia and governmental organizations of the importance of developing students’ familiarity with China and recognition that the United States needs more people in our workforce with this type of knowledge. Many of the obstacles crop up at the individual level. Resources, especially the costs of study abroad programs, deter students from participating. Also, academic credit does not always transfer back to students’ home institutions. Additionally, studying in China is largely a first-generation endeavor; many parents who may have studied abroad in other locations may feel uncomfortable sending their child to an unfamiliar destination. There is much more work to be done to educate parents, and students for that matter, about how a study abroad experience in China can be an enormously positive experience for their children.
It is critical that more Americans understand Chinese culture and recognize the importance of this critical bilateral relationship. Last year, 235,000 Chinese students studied in the United States, compared to about 30,000 American students who studied in China. The 100,000 Strong Foundation is working to reduce barriers in order to increase the number of American students in China.
(TI) Your time at NBR introduced you to a wide variety of research efforts in China. How has that perspective informed your work with the 100,000 Strong Foundation?
(TT) My background allowed me to truly appreciate the importance of the entire Asia-Pacific region and the critical role the United States and China play in this vital part of the world. The US economy is tied to the global economy and, as a result, we need to invest in the next generation of leaders who will continue to manage our relations with Asia and specifically China. My experience at NBR increased my understanding of the importance of Asia in the world, given the locus of power and wealth concentrated there. China is an increasingly key player in the region as its economy and society develops. Making a long-term investment in the US-China relationship will support the overall health and stability of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the world.
(TI) Where do you see your work in the future?
(TT) I hope to see the foundation continue to grow and attract new support and interest. We want to see our message become institutionalized at the state and local levels. China should no longer be an “optional” course, but a required subject for all students. We hope to see more Chinese language instruction at the K-12 level and increased participation and dedication shown by local government officials and educators. In summary, we will look to continue to expand the number of opportunities for students to study in China.
(TI) What are some examples of successful career paths you see ahead for young students who wish to tie their academic interests to a regional interest in China?
(TT) There is no limit to the career opportunities that a background in Chinese language and familiarity with the world’s second largest economy can provide. We want to educate and train American students to become globally competitive entrepreneurs, diplomats, journalists, lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists, doctors and workers who understand China, including its unique market dynamics, speak Chinese and have relationships with their Chinese counterparts. As our societies become more and more intertwined, these skills will become increasingly important all across the professional world.
(TI) What are you most looking forward to learning from the Denver conference?
(TT) I am most looking forward to learning from the other conference participants. There is a great deal of enthusiasm and momentum at the subnational level, and I look forward to learning more about the many projects and initiatives underway that are contributing to these developments.