WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — Speaking with students during her weeklong tour of China, Michelle Obama touted the power of study abroad programs as an important portion of U.S. foreign policy and encouraged youth from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue educational diversity.
In multiple speeches with young audiences of Chinese and international students over the course of the week, the first lady looked to balance an educational rift between China and the U.S. by encouraging more American students to study in China – a country whose exchange students represent the highest number who study in the U.S.
“I’m here today because I know that our future depends on connections like these among young people like you across the globe,” the first lady told an audience composed of Chinese and international students at Peking University.
“You have to be comfortable traveling and living in all parts of the world, because that’s how you’re going to get jobs in the future,” she said in response to a question from one of the students at a high school in Chengdu on Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reports.
She noted that climate change and other “defining challenges” can be tackled more easily with better international relations.
She quoted one study abroad student, saying that study abroad programs create a powerful vehicle moving into a “new era of citizen diplomacy” that utilizes technology to bypass diplomatic, financial or governmental restraints in order to spread a message internationally.
“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.”
She stressed that economic and racial differences should not discourage students from pursuing study abroad programs.
“[Students] may feel like studying abroad is only for wealthy students or students from certain kinds of universities,” Obama said at Peking University. “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.”
She noted her own economic difficulties growing up in a working-class family in which study abroad was never reasonably affordable.
“That’s not acceptable, because study abroad shouldn’t just be for students from certain backgrounds,” she said.
Her comments reflect her ongoing support for study abroad programs, along with President Barack Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” that aims to increase the number of Americans studying in China. She rejected the notion that “rich kids” should be the only ones able to travel abroad.
“The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually helping to make America stronger,” Obama said in 2011 speech at Howard University.
“And the truth is, with the high cost of college these days, many young people are struggling just to afford a regular semester of school — (applause) — let alone pay for the airline tickets and the living expenses to go halfway around the world.”
The U.S. currently sends about 20,000 students to China each year, with U.S. fellowships and volunteer exchanges boosting those numbers. One of the president’s “100,000 Strong” program started in 2010 was to promote balance, including data from a U.S. Embassy in Beijing report that 600 times more Chinese study English than Americans study Mandarin, WSJ reports.