Exchange to China
Each spring, the National Committee selects twelve nationally-recognized American high school graduates to participate in the annual U.S.-China Student Leaders Exchange (SLE). The heart of the program is a two-week study visit to China during the summer between high school and college, during which participants learn about China's successes and challenges. Home stays with host families also provide exceptional opportunities for participants to meet and exchange ideas with their Chinese counterparts.

The National Committee has run the program since 2004. Through 2013, the program was open exclusively to U.S. Presidential Scholars, a designation annually conferred upon up to 161 American graduating high school seniors nationwide by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, the program was opened to the 40 Regeneron Science Talent Search Finalists (formerly known as Intel STS Finalists), as well. In choosing participants, the Committee gives preference to applicants who have not been to China before and/or who have had only limited exposure to the country.

The 2018 Student Leaders Exchange took place from July 7 to July 25 (including a mandatory three-day pre-departure orientation in Menlo Park, CA). Click here to read more.

Exchange to the United States
In 2007, the Student Leaders Exchange also began bringing twelve outstanding Chinese senior high school students to the United States for two weeks. The U.S. visit included many of the same types of activities enjoyed by the students' American counterparts: homestays, student-student interactions, university and high school visits, traditional sightseeing, etc. The program also included a community service component. The program to the States ran again in 2012 and 2013, but is currently on hiatus.

Program Sponsorship
In 2014, the Yihai Group North America became the exclusive funder of the Student Leaders Exchange to China. The National Committee grateful to Yihai for its generous support.

Last Held:
July 7, 2018 to July 25, 2018

Program Materials


  • The Impacts of the Student Leader Exchange  
    By Rachel Mans McKenny (2006, PA)

    Rachel Mans McKenny was a 2006 Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Currently, she is a writer and adjunct professor at Iowa State University. She has been published recently in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and US Catholic. You can find her @rmmckenny on Twitter.

    This piece originally appeared in the April 2018 edition of The Medallion, the newsletter of the Presidential Scholars Alumni Association.

    Twelve years ago this summer, I stood on the Great Wall of China. Clouds obscured my view. My host sister grabbed my hand, dragging me to sit next to her so we could share our lunch: a bag of McDonald’s hamburgers. Many miles and many years divide then and now, but I still remember the taste of those burgers and the fresh lychee fruit we peeled. I was eighteen. I was away from home without my family, and I was learning more than I had in any trip in my past.

    I was one of twelve students selected in 2006 to participate in the Student Leaders Exchange (SLE), a two-week program run by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations that sends newly named Presidential Scholars to China to learn about the country’s successes and challenges. With my fellow scholars, we travelled to three cities in the exciting period leading up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Some items on our itinerary would be in common with those arranged by most tourists to China—like the Great Wall visit. Some were rare, like a sit-down with an official from the technology group overseeing the construction of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium and a tour of the Great Mosque in Xian, the religious and cultural center of China’s Hui Muslims. Some experiences were also unique for other reasons. During my year, we also appeared on a public access television show with our host siblings called Super Class Meeting. Yours truly sang “Memory” from Cats.


    Rachel Mans McKenny with her host siblings


    2006 Student Leaders Exchange participants

    In talking with other SLE alumni, both memories and talent shows came up. Jason Misium (2004, TX) recalled fond memories of watching the Chinese students display their performative skills. “It made me aware of how much discipline the students must have had instilled in them from a very young age,” Misium stated, bemoaning the fact that his one month in a garage band couldn’t quite match those expectations. 

    For Misium, SLE was eye-opening in more ways than just the musical. He admits that, as the child of immigrants from South America and a resident of Texas, he knew almost nothing about Chinese culture or history. He stated, “For a Latino (even one like me who culturally grew up very American), there couldn't be a place more foreign than China. In English, there's the phrase ‘It's all Greek to me’ when something is unintelligible. In Spanish, it's ‘me suena todo a chino,’ literally ‘it all sounds Chinese to me.’”

    Although an outstanding student, Misium’s interests varied widely from film to physics. He joked, “I wanted to learn everything and then eventually segue into global domination.” In truth, Misium’s trip to China proved instrumental in providing guidance for his adult life. He has been working and living in China since he graduated college in 2008, working on creation of human resources tools for start-ups. He credits SLE for giving him the confidence not only to travel to, but also to live and work in, a different part of the world.

    While SLE alumna Brenna Decker (2005, IA) didn’t aspire to world domination in her teen years, her laser-like focus on architecture helped her get the most out of her trip to China. She remarks that because of the host family experience and variety of places visited, she gained a much greater understanding of contrasts between rural and urban life. In a single day, she recalls traveling from an artisan’s workshop in a traditional farming village back to the landscape of shiny glass-and-steel skyscrapers. 

    In her educational work after the trip, Decker’s interest in Chinese architecture never slackened. When selecting a topic for her college thesis, she applied traditional Chinese design principles to a modern-day residential development in Beijing. She currently lives out her dreams, designing residential projects for many cities in China in her work as a project manager at a large architectural firm in New York City.

    The long-range impacts of my own SLE experience center mostly around the people I met during my time in China. Since that trip, I’ve transitioned not only from teenager to voting-age citizen, but also from student to professor. In the first few years after the trip, I kept in touch with my host siblings as they went through the college application process: both of them went to North American colleges. Now, at my university, I instruct students from diverse backgrounds and locations in techniques for written and oral communication. Many of my students every year come from China. My experiences during the two weeks of SLE widened my worldview and made me more empathetic to the needs of students from abroad. Also, living in Iowa, I pay closer attention to the agricultural and trade connections between China and the United States than I would have without having participated in SLE. 

    Those “hamburger on the Great Wall” experiences have affected other scholars as well. Some SLE participants caught the China bug more strongly than others. For example, SLE boasts both a Rhodes and Marshall Scholar winner (Sam Galler (2008, CO) and Ned Downie (2009, DC), respectively, each of whom has used his degree to become an exceptional China specialist. Other scholars have achieved fantastic (non-China) leadership positions in science, medicine, law, engineering, education, and the arts, to name just a few: people like Ben Pope (2004, MA), an Apple engineer; Chetan Narain (2007, NJ), an Uber senior product manager; Shalita Grant (2006, MD), star of stage and screen; Margaret Glaspy (2007, CA), an indie singing sensation; and entrepreneurs Annemarie Ryu (2009, MN) and Ruchir Shah (2008, RI), each of whom has launched and grown his or her  company.

    What all these participants over the last fourteen years have in common is a widened perspective that could only come from a program like the Student Leaders Exchange. Their unique experiences are a head-start that has already—or will—serve them well for whenever their professional and personal lives inevitably intersect with China.

  • 2018 Student Leaders Exchange

    July 7, 2018 to July 25, 2018

    The 2018 SLE took place July 7-25, including a three-day, informative pre-departure orientation outside of San Francisco. The itinerary included stops in Beijing, Guizhou Province (Guiyang), and Sichuan Province (Chengdu). 

    Participants in the 2018 SLE...

    • Enjoyed exceptional opportunities to engage with Chinese students
    • Lived with Chinese families to experience daily life in a Chinese home
    • Delved into China's contemporary culture, history, and society through briefings with China experts and visits to important institutions
    • Took in the sights of modern and ancient China

Related Materials

  • Chinatown, an Amazing Experience, and a Flaw in My High School Education


    Every Saturday evening, my mom and her band partner would travel to the fanciest restaurant in town to play jazz music for the diners. In exchange, the restaurant owner provided dinner for the two of them. Unfortunately, this left my twin sister, dad, and myself to fend for ourselves once a week for dinner. Sometimes my dad would heat up some leftovers or throw a frozen pizza in the oven, but often we would end up venturing into town out of pure convenience. Despite all its advantages, living in a three-stoplight town with five thousand people means that dining options are limited. There isn’t too much to choose from besides the ubiquitous fast food trio: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Subway. Often, the three of us would find ourselves stopping at “Chinatown.” Much like the décor of the entire restaurant, the sign was of minimalistic design, consisting of red and yellow block letters that blandly announced the name. Inside, a series of tables and sticky faux-leather booths encircled a single line of dishes. Heat lamps cast a harsh yellow light on the food. I found that it was better not to consider how the food was reheated or how long it had been sitting on the table. “Chinatown” was simple and unimpressive, but my family and I enjoyed it enough to visit every few weeks.

    That restaurant in my hometown represented the extent to which I knew about China (although I would soon discover that the food was not authentic at all). Since visiting China, I have begun to realize how unaware I was of the country and its significance during the first eighteen years of my life. I rarely cast a thought to the vast and complicated population, economy, government, and culture on the other side of the globe. From the effects of increased Chinese demand for beef (I live on a cattle ranch) to the prevalence of low cost manufactured goods, I also had no idea how much China influenced me every day. I was oblivious to my own ignorance.

    School did not help eliminate my ignorance, and in hindsight I have some concerns with the material taught at my high school. The last time I remember learning anything related to China was in middle school, when we completed a brief unit on the terra cotta soldiers. That lesson was less about China and more of a quick overview of notable sites from around the world. I now realize that I have learned about pre-1865 United States history during three different classes. I believe that this is an important period for students to learn about, but covering the same material three times is redundant and a waste of time. My high school offered a single world history class that all juniors took. In hindsight, this was not really a “world” history class at all. We only learned about European history, and only up to the Industrial Revolution.

    After visiting China, I now recognize how much my history classes skipped over or never even covered. I would argue that a thorough understanding of recent history is invaluable knowledge that can be exercised daily to better understand the world. In less than one hundred years, China has undergone a complete transformation. It has changed from an impoverished, predominantly agricultural country to one with highly developed, technologically advanced hubs of commerce and production. China’s rapid growth is not only economic, but also political and social. Recent changes by China’s leadership has put the United States and other world powers on edge. A new culture of innovation and capitalism seems to be emerging from a once strictly communist society. The United States must constantly address a myriad of issues that arise in the complicated relationship with China.

    After landing in Beijing, I had one number stuck in my head. Twenty-two million. The population was surprising for those in my group from major U.S. cities, so it was especially shocking for a ranch kid whose nearest neighbors live two miles away. I quickly learned that yielding to pedestrians isn’t a thing in China and when someone honks, you better get out of the way. I was also unnerved to see security cameras hanging from every street corner. There was no place in the city to get out of sight—from human or electronic eyes.

    My first night with a host family quickly showed me that there is a lot more to Chinese culture than the huge population. My host families taught me new manners, customs, and traditions. Throughout the two-week trip, my chopstick skills transformed from lacking to moderately proficient. Perhaps my most memorable experience came in Chengdu. My host sibling and a friend brought me to park at the center of the city. I sipped green tea while attempting to learn the thousands of years old game of Mahjong. Almost every table at the park hosted a group of Mahjong enthusiasts. I cherish this experience because it was so genuine and traditional.

    The trip to China not only exposed us to a new culture, but also to vastly different political and government landscapes. Of the little information that I had gleaned from U.S. news sources prior to the trip, I somewhat grasped my country’s views on U.S.-China relations. A meeting with several officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs introduced me to China’s official perspectives on matters such as Taiwan, tariffs, and the South China Sea. It is a very powerful experience to have candid and open discussion about contentious issues with someone who has fundamentally different opinions. Near the end of the trip, my group met with diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. In that setting, I would learn the U.S.’s official stance on the same issues. Both meetings were enlightening because they offered two very different viewpoints, but also the hope of understanding and compromise.

    My time in China left me with countless memories that I will not forget. Through photos and stories, I have enjoyed sharing my experiences with friends and family. However, my trip has left me with a much greater responsibility. I am humbled to have witnessed a country that I was but faintly aware of before this experience, but I realize that there are many people in my pre-trip shoes; China is just a dot on the map for them, another name that gets forgotten in the daily rush of school, news, and debate. Yet China does and will continue to affect the United States in all aspects. As current issues fade from the news cycle, new ones will pop up such as the One Belt, One Road initiative and Chinese environmental concerns. I want my family, peers, teachers, administrators, and fellow citizens to understand the importance of a well-rounded, global perspective. In a globalized, interconnected world, Politics on the other side of the world are arguably as relevant as those that occur within our borders. As I have discovered, poor quality Chinese food is not sufficient to understand the multifaceted characteristics of a country that influences us in so many ways.

    Rhett Pimentel is 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar from Wyoming.  He is currently a freshman at Michigan State University.

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