BEIJING, Aug. 11 (Xinhuanet) -- Tao Tao Holmes had a straightforward, if exotic, plan: explore the Chinese language and maybe devote some free time during the summer to a worthy cause.
Multiple trips as a child to the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Great Wall - majestic but also packed with tourists - hadn't piqued her curiosity about the land where her mother was born.
"I've been to China many times," the 21-year-old from Connecticut said. "Most of them were over the summer growing up. But in recent years I've had more independent experiences, and my attitudes toward China have absolutely shifted as I've grown older."
One experience in particular, in May 2008 at Deyang Middle School in Sichuan province, transformed what had been a passing interest into fascination.
Holmes had been teaching English and volunteering at the school when Sichuan was hit by an 8.0-magnitude earthquake that ultimately took more than 69,000 lives. The losses - of relatives, friends and classmates - were so extensive, they nearly defy enumeration, much less understanding.
As seismic aftershocks rumbled intermittently, Holmes struggled not only with the difficulty of being the only foreigner around, but also seeing the hardships of her students, who weren't much younger than her.
"It was very hard to watch their tremendous pain," she recalled.
That unforgettable time in Deyang deepened Holmes' interest in China. Three years later, she returned to the country, this time to study in Beijing.
"Compared to other Americans, my Chinese is by now proficient and I can communicate suitably, but still I'd like to reach a point where I can fully communicate with all of my Chinese relatives," she said.
It's getting easier for people like Holmes to become adept in Mandarin.
"There are always grants and fellowships to take advantage of," the Yale student said.
For instance, her university offers the Richard U Light Fellowship, a set of programs that enables undergraduates with facility in East Asian languages to study in China, Japan or South Korea.
"A lucky few, often in cities like New York and Washington, DC, take Chinese in high school, but a majority begin in college and stick to it," Holmes said.
"And some definitely end up as Sinophiles by the end of it."
That's certainly true of 17-year old Reena Jailwala, from the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Illinois. Unlike Holmes, she had no family tie to China. Instead, she seized the rare opportunity to study Mandarin offered by her public high school.
Jailwala ended up "absolutely falling in love with the language," she said.
Eventually she let curiosity take over, embarking on a yearlong study-abroad program in Beijing, which included staying with a local family. During her sojourn, which ended in July, she not only studied language and absorbed the culture, but also raised money for an orphanage in remote Gansu province. She called the experience one of the most valuable of her life.
"The orphanage wasn't getting the attention it needed," she said. "It was not only worthwhile but also necessary to raise money for these children."
Through bake sales, pledge drives and donations, the project raised 5,000 yuan (about $800) to provide the orphanage toys, shoes, school supplies and much-needed medicines.
Recalling her initial encounter with the children, Jailwala said: "The look of joy in their eyes was enough to communicate how much they appreciated that people from halfway across the world cared."
Today, she remains grateful for the language program in Barrington that kick-started that once-in-a-lifetime chance and her enduring interest.
Not only was Mandarin recently incorporated into curriculum at Jailwala's Barrington High School, in 2010 the Barrington school district's Chinese department received a $500,000 grant from the federal government to enable students to begin studying the language as early as kindergarten.
"They are learning half their subjects, including science and math, in Chinese," Jailwala said.
To help serve growing interest in Chinese study, US President Barack Obama introduced the "100,000 Strong" initiative, which aims to increase the number of US students who spend a semester or more in China.
Nearly 14,000 US students in 2009-2010 alone received academic credit for study in China. The country remains the fifth-most popular study-abroad destination for US students, and the only one of the top five host countries outside Western Europe, according to the annual Open Doors report released by the Washington-based Institute of International Education.
In support of the Obama initiative, China's Ministry of Education is offering 10,000 "CPE" scholarships - under the bilateral Consultation on People-to-People Exchange - for US undergraduates to study at one of several top Chinese universities.
"People-to-people exchanges are perhaps the best way to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of who we are and how we can build respectful, win-win relationships moving forward," said Tom Watkins, a former Michigan state superintendent of schools.
Watkins said he would like to see more of America's youth travel to China to get to know their global classmates.
"Getting to know each other on a personal level will make for a better world," he said.
Tensions between the US and Chinese governments "now confound" Jailwala, she said. "I learned that on a personal scale there are no differences between my Chinese friends, family, teachers and me."