Remarks by the First Lady at Stanford Center at Peking University

Michelle Obama gave a speech on the importance of education to students, educators, and distinguished guests at Peking University’s Stanford Center in Beijing, March 22, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
Michelle Obama gave a speech on the importance of education to students, educators, and distinguished guests at Peking University’s Stanford Center in Beijing, March 22, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Remarks of First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama

Stanford Center at Peking University

Beijing, China

March 22nd, 2014
Ni-Hao.  It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you at this great university…thank you so much for having me.

And before I get started today, on behalf of myself and my husband, I just want to say a few very brief words about Malaysian 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 the families and loved ones of those on this flight in our thoughts and prayers at this very difficult time.

And 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 has an excellent study abroad program in Shanghai… and John Thornton, Director of the Global Leadership Program at Tsinghua University…thank you all so much for joining us.

And most of all, I want to thank all of the students for being here today…and I particularly want to thank Eric Schafer and Zhu Xuanhao for that extraordinary English and Chinese introduction.

That was such a powerful symbol of everything I want to talk with you about today.

You 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 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 our 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.

You see, 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 and skype with people on every continent.

So studying abroad isn’t just a fun way to spend a semester – it’s 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…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.

No one country can confront them alone…the only way forward is together.

That’s why it’s 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 someone else’s culture…by learning each other’s stories…and by getting past the stereotypes and misconceptions that too often divide us.
That’s how you come to understand how much we all share.

And 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.

Professor Niu Ke from Peking University was a Fulbright Scholar in the U.S. last year…and he reported, and I quote, “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.

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 study 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 really be useful in my life?”

I understand where these young people are coming from, because I felt the same way back when I was in college.

You see, I came from a working class family…and it never even occurred to me to study abroad.

My parents didn’t get to attend college, and I was focused on getting into a university and earning my degree so I could get a job and support myself.

And 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 makes our country so vibrant and strong…and our study abroad programs should reflect the true spirit of America to the world.

That’s why, when my husband visited China back in 2009, he announced our 100,000 Strong initiative to increase the number and diversity of American students studying in China.

And this year, as we mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the normalization of relations between our countries…the U.S. Government actually supports more American students in China than in any other country in the world.

We’re 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.

The private sector is stepping up as well.

For example, Steve Schwarzman, 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 from Cleveland, Ohio who attends New York University’s program in Shanghai.

Like me, Royale is a first generation college student…and her mother worked two fulltime jobs while her father worked nights to support their family.

Of her experience in Shanghai, she said, “This city oozes persistence and inspires me to accomplish all that I can.”

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.

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 couldn’t have said it better myself, because that’s really what I’m talking about…I’m 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.

That’s why I’m posting a daily travel blog with videos and photos of my experiences in China – because I want young people in America to be part of this visit.

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 is 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, 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 every argument…and by judging for ourselves.

And believe me, I know 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 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 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’re changing the lives of everyone you meet.

As the great American President John F. Kennedy once said about foreign students studying in the U.S., “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.

Every day, you show the world your countries’ energy, creativity, optimism and unwavering belief in the future.

And every day, you remind us 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.