The First Lady on the Importance of Studying Abroad

The First Lady:
(applause) Thank you. Well, ni-hao. (laughter) It is such a
pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you at
this great university, so thank you so much
for having me. Now, before I get started
today, on behalf of myself and my husband, I just
want to say a few very brief words about Malaysia
Airlines Flight 370. As my husband has said,
the United States is offering as many resources
as possible to assist in the search. And please know that we
are keeping all of the families and loved ones of
those on this flight in our thoughts and prayers
at this very difficult time. Now with that, I want to
start by recognizing our new Ambassador to China,
Ambassador Baucus; President Wang; Chairman
Zhu; Vice President Li; Director Cueller;
Professor Oi, and the Stanford Center; President
Sexton from New York University, which is an
excellent study abroad program in Shanghai; and
John Thornton, Director of the Global
Leadership Program at Tsinghua University. Thank you all
for joining us. But most of all, I want to
thank all of the students who are here today. And I particularly want to
thank Eric Schaefer and Zhu Xuanhao for that
extraordinary English and Chinese introduction. That was a powerful symbol
of everything that I want to talk with
you about today. See, by learning each
other’s languages, and by showing such curiosity
and respect for each other’s cultures, Mr. Schafer and
Ms. Zhu and all of you are building
bridges of understanding that will lead to so much more. And I’m here today because
I know that our future depends on connections
like these among young people like you
across the globe. That’s why when my husband
and I travel abroad, we don’t just visit palaces
and parliaments and meet with heads of state. We also come to schools
like this one to meet with students like you,
because we believe that relationships between
nations aren’t just about relationships between
governments or leaders — they’re about
relationships between people, particularly
young people. So we view study abroad
programs not just as an educational opportunity
for students, but also as a vital part of
America’s foreign policy. Through the wonders of
modern technology, our world is more connected
than ever before. Ideas can cross oceans
with the click of a button. Companies can do business
and compete with companies across the globe. And we can text, email,
Skype with people on every continent. So studying abroad isn’t
just a fun way to spend a semester; it is quickly
becoming the key to success in our
global economy. Because getting ahead in
today’s workplaces isn’t just about getting good
grades or test scores in school, which
are important. It’s also about having
real experience with the world beyond your borders
— experience with languages, cultures and
societies very different from your own. Or, as the Chinese saying
goes: “It is better to travel ten thousand miles
than to read ten thousand books.” But let’s be clear,
studying abroad is about so much more than
improving your own future. It’s also about shaping
the future of your countries and of the
world we all share. Because when it comes to
the defining challenges of our time — whether it’s
climate change or economic opportunity or the
spread of nuclear weapons — these are shared
challenges. And no one country can confront them alone. The only way
forward is together. That’s why it is so
important for young people like you to live and study
in each other’s countries, because that’s how you
develop that habit of cooperation. You do it by immersing
yourself in one another’s culture, by learning
each other’s stories, by getting past the
stereotypes and misconceptions that
too often divide us. That’s how you come to
understand how much we all share. That’s how you realize
that we all have a stake in each other’s success
— that cures discovered here in Beijing could save
lives in America, that clean energy technologies
from Silicon Valley in California could improve
the environment here in China, that the
architecture of an ancient temple in Xi’an
could inspire the design of new buildings in
Dallas or Detroit. And that’s when the
connections you make as classmates or labmates can
blossom into something more. That’s what happened when
Abigail Coplin became an American Fulbright Scholar
here at Peking University. She and her colleagues
published papers together in top science journals,
and they built research partnerships that lasted
long after they returned to their home countries. And Professor Niu Ke from
Peking University was a Fulbright
Scholarship — Scholar in the U.S. last year,
and he reported — and this is a quote from him —
he said, “The most memorable experiences were with my American friends.” These lasting bonds
represent the true value of studying abroad. And I am thrilled that
more and more students are getting this opportunity. As you’ve heard, China is
currently the fifth most popular destination for
Americans studying abroad, and today, the highest
number of exchange students in the U.S. are from China. But still, too many
students never have this chance, and some that do
are hesitant to take it. They may feel like
studying abroad is only for wealthy students or
students from certain kinds of universities. Or they may think to
themselves, well, that sounds fun but how will
it be useful in my life? And believe me, I
understand where these young people are coming
from because I felt the same way back when
I was in college. See, I came from a
working-class family, and it never occurred to me
to study abroad — never. My parents didn’t get a
chance to attend college, so I was focused on
getting into a university, earning my degree so that
I could get a good job to support myself and
help my family. And I know for a lot of
young people like me who are struggling to afford
a regular semester of school, paying for plane
tickets or living expenses halfway around the world
just isn’t possible. And that’s not acceptable,
because study abroad shouldn’t just be for
students from certain backgrounds. Our hope is to build
connections between people of all races and
socioeconomic backgrounds, because it is that
diversity that truly will change the face of
our relationships. So we believe that
diversity makes our country vibrant
and strong. And our study abroad
programs should reflect the true spirit of
America to the world. And that’s why when my
husband visited China back in 2009, he announced the
100,000 Strong initiative to increase the number
and diversity of American students studying
in China. And this year, as we mark
the 35th anniversary of the normalization of
relationships between our two countries, the U.S. government actually
supports more American students in China than in
any other country in the world. We are sending high
school, college and graduate students
here to study Chinese. We’re inviting teachers
from China to teach Mandarin in
American schools. We’re providing free
online advising for students in China who
want to study in the U.S. And the U.S.-China
Fulbright program is still going strong with more
than 3,000 alumni. And the private sector
is stepping up as well. For example, Steve
Schwarzman, who is the head of an American
company called Blackstone, is funding a new program
at Tsinghua University modeled on the
Rhodes Scholarship. And today, students from
all kinds of backgrounds are studying
here in China. Take the example of Royale
Nicholson, who’s from Cleveland, Ohio. She attends New York
University’s program in Shanghai. Now, like me, Royale is a
first-generation college student. And her mother worked two
full-time jobs while her father worked nights to
support their family. And of her experience in
Shanghai, Royale said — and this is her quote —
she said, “This city oozes persistence and
inspires me to accomplish all that I can.” And happy
birthday, Royale. It was her birthday
yesterday. (Laughter.) And then there’s Philmon
Haile from the University of Washington,
whose family came to the U.S. as refugees from
Eritrea when he was a child. And of his experience
studying in China, he said, “Study abroad is
a powerful vehicle for people-to-people exchange
as we move into a new era of citizen diplomacy.” “A new era of
citizen diplomacy.” I could not have said it
better myself, because that’s really what
I’m talking about. I am talking about
ordinary citizens reaching out to the world. And as I always tell young
people back in America, you don’t need to get on
a plane to be a citizen diplomat. I tell them that if
you have an Internet connection in your home,
school, or library, within seconds you can be
transported anywhere in the world and meet people
on every continent. And that’s why I’m posting
a daily travel blog with videos and photos of my
experiences here in China, because I want young
people in America to be part of this visit. And that’s really the
power of technology — how it can open up the entire
world and expose us to ideas and innovations we
never could have imagined. And that’s why it’s so
important for information and ideas to flow freely
over the Internet and through the media, because
that’s how we discover the truth. That’s how we learn what’s
really happening in our communities and our
country and our world. And that’s how we decide
which values and ideas we think are best — by
questioning and debating them vigorously, by
listening to all sides of an argument, and by
judging for ourselves. And believe me, I know how
this can be a messy and frustrating process. My husband and I are on
the receiving end of plenty of questioning and
criticism from our media and our fellow citizens. And it’s not always easy,
but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Because time and again, we
have seen that countries are stronger and more
prosperous when the voices of and opinions of
all their citizens can be heard. And as my husband has
said, we respect the uniqueness of other
cultures and societies, but when it comes to
expressing yourself freely and worshipping as you
choose and having open access to information, we
believe those universal rights — they are
universal rights that are the birthright of every
person on this planet. We believe that all people
deserve the opportunity to fulfill their highest
potential as I was able to do in the United States. And as you learn about
new cultures and form new friendships during your
time here in China and in the United States, all
of you are the living, breathing embodiment
of those values. So I guarantee you that in
studying abroad, you’re not just changing your
own life, you are changing the lives of everyone
you meet. And as the great American
President John F. Kennedy once said about
foreign students studying in the U.S., he said “I
think they teach more than they learn.” And that is just as true
of young Americans who study abroad. All of you are America’s
best face, and China’s best face, to the
world — you truly are. Every day, you show the
world your countries’ energy and creativity and
optimism and unwavering belief in the future. And every day, you remind
us — and me in particular — of just how much we can
achieve if we reach across borders, and learn to see
ourselves in each other, and confront our shared
challenges with shared resolve. So I hope you all will
keep seeking these kinds of experiences. And I hope you’ll keep
teaching each other, and learning from each other,
and building bonds of friendship that will
enrich your lives and enrich our world for
decades to come. You all have so much to
offer, and I cannot wait to see all that
you achieve together in the years ahead. Thank you so much. Xie-Xie. (applause)

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