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.

Student Leaders Exchange

Student Leaders Exchange

Since 2004, the National Committee has been selecting twelve graduating U.S. high school seniors who have received national recognition for their accomplishments to participate in the yearly U.S.-China Student Leaders Exchange. For the young American participants, the heart of the program is a two-week study visit to China during the summer between high school and college. Americans participants learn about China's successes and challenges and have unusual opportunities to meet and exchange ideas with their Chinese counterparts as a consequence of homestays throughout most of the program.

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