Note: This post is part of a series authored by First Lady Michelle Obama to share her visit to China with young people in the U.S. You can read all of the First Lady's posts at WhiteHouse.gov/First-Lady-China-Trip.
"I hope you’ll keep...building bonds of friendship that will enrich your lives & enrich our world." —The First Lady, pic.twitter.com/uKX9jd2Vky— FLOTUS (@FLOTUS) March 22, 2014
This morning, I had the privilege of visiting Peking University and speaking with Chinese students and American students studying abroad here in China. Peking University was founded more than a hundred years ago, in 1898, and it is one of China’s best-known universities. The American students in the audience today came from a number of different universities, and by studying here in China, they get to experience daily life in this country firsthand, practice their Chinese, and form lifelong friendships with Chinese students.
As I said in my speech today, these experiences represent so much more than a fun way to spend a semester. In today’s increasingly global, interconnected economy, businesses here in America do business with, and compete with, businesses around the world. So these days, knowing a foreign language and being familiar with a foreign culture can actually be an important qualification for a job.
In addition, so many of the challenges we face today – like climate change, economic opportunity, and disease – are shared challenges, meaning that no one person in any one country can address them alone. So soon, it will be up to your generation to solve these problems working with other young leaders across the globe. And by studying abroad, and getting to understand cultures and societies different from your own, you can begin to lay the foundation for that kind of cooperation.
But make no mistake about it, you don’t need to get on a plane to see the world and engage with people from other countries. I told students today that if you have access to a computer with an internet connection in your home, school, or library, then with the click of a button, you can transport yourself anywhere in the world and connect with people on every continent. And of course, you can do this because in America, ideas and information can flow freely over the internet. As I said today, the First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees all of us the right to free speech, and our government puts few limits on what we can say online, on TV and in the newspapers.
The government in China puts restrictions on both the internet and the news media, but when my husband and I travel, we feel that it’s important to talk about what we believe in America. This is how we start a conversation through which countries can better understand each other’s values and beliefs. That’s why, in my speech today, I talked about how in America, we believe that we’re strongest when everyone’s voices can be heard and people can question and criticize their government freely and openly. That’s how we discover the truth about what’s happening in our communities, our country and our world. And that’s how we decide which ideas are best – by hearing everyone’s opinions and then judging for ourselves.
This can sometimes be a messy and frustrating process. But as I said today, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, because this vibrant exchange of ideas is what makes us who we are. It’s how we challenge each other and learn from each other, and it ensures that our government is truly listening to the voices of the people it serves. My husband and I feel tremendously lucky to be part of this process every single day.
After my speech, I met with a group of Chinese and American students studying here at Peking University -- and we connected by video to a group of high school and college students back home in the U.S. who had gathered at Stanford University in California. We had a lively discussion during which students shared stories about their experiences studying abroad in China. Several students admitted that before arriving in China, they had all kinds of fears -- they worried that they wouldn't be able to speak Chinese well enough, that they would struggle to adjust to a new environment, and that they would be further away from home than ever before. But they all agreed that by overcoming those fears, they had learned and grown more than they could ever have imagined.
One student also spoke about his worries about the cost of studying abroad, a concern that many other students could relate to. I emphasized that study abroad should be for students from all kinds of backgrounds -- students of every race and socioeconomic level. Because I believe that kind of diversity is who we are -- it's what makes our country so vibrant and strong -- and our study abroad programs should help us show America's true face to the world. That's why my husband supports programs like 100,000 Strong that give students from all different backgrounds the chance to study abroad.
So no matter where you come from or how much money your parents have, I hope that all of you reading this blog today will consider studying abroad one day.