Students looking for an opportunity to study abroad are not focusing all their attention on Europe, Japan or any number of Latin American countries.

A new study by the Institute of International Education shows 26,000 U.S. students were in China in 2011.

The not-for-profit education and training institute, founded in 1919, reported that 15,000 students sought academic credits in China during the 2010-2011 school year, marking a “fivefold increase in the number of American students studying abroad in China over the last decade.”

Additionally, 11,000 Americans went to China — including Hong Kong and Macau — in 2011 to obtain a full degree from a Chinese university or to take part in other such learning experiences as study tours, language study, internships and volunteering/service learning, the study showed. The institute’s 2012 Open Doors report is supported by the Ford Foundation.

The study asserts the newfound interest in China coincides with the launch of the U.S. government’s “100,000 Strong Initiative,” announced in 2009, to “substantially increase” the number and diversity of U.S. students studying in China — with the program’s goal of having 100,000 U.S. students in China by 2014.

With 26,000 U.S. students — or 26 percent of the initiative’s goal — learning in China in 2011, upping the count by another 76,000 students in the next two years seems like a daunting challenge, but officials from the U.S. State Department and Institute of International Education predict the goal will be met.

Regardless of whether the 100,000 goal is realized by 2014, American students likely will flock to China by the thousands through the end of this decade.

“This [100,000 strong] initiative seeks to prepare the next generation of American experts on China who will be charged with managing the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the United States and China,” the State Department said in a Jan. 24 news release.

When I was growing up, the two superpowers were the United States and the former Soviet Union. I do not recall a push by the State Department to send 100,000 students to Russia. Of course, the Cold War might have had something to do with that.

China’s rise to superpower status didn’t happen overnight. The country has been taking a more prominent role on the global stage for a number of years, so it should not come as a surprise that the U.S. is showing a greater interest in learning all it can about China.

The road to enlightenment is not a one-way street.

An Open Doors report, issued by the institute and the State Department in November 2012, showed 194,000 Chinese students were enrolled in classes at U.S. universities and colleges during the 2011-2012 school year, an increase of more than 23 percent from the previous year.

Jeanette Lowry, Spanish and multi-culture studies teacher at Central Heights schools, joined a group of educators on a 16-day trip to China and South Korea last June.

“It was wonderful, and it made me think about how similar we are [the world over],” Lowry said in an October interview.

The China-South Korea excursion, Lowry said, provided her with the opportunity to compare and contrast these Asian countries with the U.S. and the many Spanish-speaking countries she has visited.

“As a teacher, you have to be able to lead open-minded discussions about the history and culture [of a people],” Lowry said of her multi-culture studies classes. “I have a new enthusiasm about China and South Korea. I was already teaching some things about East Asia, but this trip enabled me to bring more to the table about [the region’s] culture and history.”

The exchange of students — and teachers — between the two countries is healthy and should be encouraged as the world becomes more of a global marketplace with each flip of the calendar page.

Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com