Yale’s plans to open a liberal arts college in Singapore are not the University’s first foray into education in Asia. More than a century ago, a group of Yale students traveled 10,000 miles by steamer to establish the Yale-China Association and set up a medical school in Changsha, China.

At an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea on Tuesday, Nancy Yao Maasbach SOM ’99, the current and first Chinese-American executive director of the Yale-China Association, spoke to an audience of about 30 students about the association and its history. Maasbach said that while she does not “love” China as a country, she is passionate about her work because she thinks U.S.-China relations need to be built up on the individual level, rather than just the international level.

As an American-born Chinese, Maasbach said she has used her cultural and professional experience to approach issues with philanthropy in China. And as she talked about her personal history, she also traced the evolution of the Yale-China association from a missionary enterprise at the beginning of the 20th century to the current organization, which offers fellowships and programs in the fields of public service, health and education.

“A group of Yale graduates … traveled 10,000 miles to establish a school, a medical school,” Maasbach said, of the founders of 1901. “Their audacity is just unbelievable in my mind.”

Ten years later, the association established the Yale-China English Teaching Fellowship — now celebrating its 100th anniversary — which sends recent graduates to China for two years to teach English at high schools and universities. Maasbach passed around an antique diploma from one of these schools, Yale College in China, High School Department. She also told the stories of past participants, such as William Winston Pettus MED ’37, who served as a doctor in the Central Yale Hospital in Changsha during World War II and was killed in a plane crash during the war.

A piece of shrapnel from a rescue mission Pettus led — along with other archived documents and memorabilia from the teaching fellowship — is currently on view at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City, Maasbach said.

As she encouraged students to participate in the two-year fellowship, she also said there are challenges to philanthropy and service in China. The Chinese government, she said, recently cracked down on NGOs that receive certain amounts of foreign funding and now requires them to register.

“You can’t just do whatever you want,” Maasbach said. “You have to respect the current authority.”

In addition, she said, though people around the world are interested in giving back to China, the country lacks the infrastructure to accommodate the NGOs.

Maasbach said her own experiences have also influenced her work. She has worked in banking, entrepreneurship and foreign relations, which she said has prepared her for managing the Yale-China Association. And though she was brought up in a traditional Chinese family, with traditional perspectives on issues such as the unification of Taiwan and China, she said she was determined not to let her cultural upbringing get in the way of objectivity. For example, her grandfather was a three-star general in the Chinese Nationalist Army and, as such, was very anti-Japanese. But she decided to study abroad in Japan to develop her own opinions.

Ezra Stiles College Master Stephen Pitti said he invited Maasbach to the Tea because of his own connection with the association: Ten years ago, he taught a class of visiting scholars from Republic of China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, organized through the Yale-China Association.

Four students interviewed said they thought the Tea was interesting and accessible even to students who are not familiar with philanthropy in China or the Yale-China Association.

Lucia Huang ’14 said that as another American-born Chinese person she found Maasbach’s talk and experiences relatable.

“It was interesting to hear how her past experiences with finance and foreign relations inform her approach to nonprofit,” Jack Montgomery ’12 said.

After a question-and-answer session, Maasbach quizzed students on what year the Yale-China Association was founded, which areas its programs cover today and how many Yale students founded Yale-China. She then gave out souvenirs when students answered correctly.

The exhibit on the teaching fellowship will be on display until Oct. 11.