Obama visits Stanford center at Peking University, talks international education

March 31, 2014, 12:00 a.m.
Courtesy of Stanford University
Courtesy of Stanford University

Last Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama teleconferenced with Stanford students, local high school students and students studying in China to discuss international education and studying abroad. The conference took place during Obama’s visit to Peking University.

Speaking to Peking University

Wang Enge, President of Peking University, welcomed Obama with a speech explaining how study abroad can serve as a tool for international cooperation.

“It takes a village to educate a young generation of leaders. Let’s work together,” Enge said.

Max Baucus ’64 J.D. ’67, U.S. Ambassador to China, said his experience studying abroad during his time at Stanford helped him find “his calling” in the foreign service.

“Taste the food, talk to people, learn about the culture, struggle with the language,” he urged students. “The more we study overseas and learn what’s happening in other countries, the more interconnected and more lively [the world] will be.”

Obama went on to emphasize cross-cultural connection, particularly between students in the United States and China. She cited the national 100,000 Strong Educational Exchange initiative, which President Obama announced during his visit to China in 2009.

“We believe that relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between government or leaders. They’re about relationships between people, particularly young people,” Obama said. “We view study abroad programs not just as an educational opportunity for students but also as a vital part of America’s foreign policy.”

The flow of U.S. students into China and vice versa has remained strong in recent years: China is the fifth most popular destination for American students studying abroad, and Chinese students comprise the largest percentage of international students in the United States.

Obama stressed that studying abroad provides students with the tools to succeed in a global economy and shape the world around them. She also encouraged students to engage in a “new era of citizen diplomacy,” arguing that anyone can play the role of a diplomat.

“When it comes to the final challenges of our time, whether it’s climate change or economic opportunity or the spread of nuclear weapons, these are shared challenges,” Obama said. “And no one country can confront them alone. The only way forward is together.”


Technology enabling citizen diplomacy

Obama explained that technological development has enabled citizen diplomacy via the Internet and online media.

“Through the wonders of modern technology, our world is more connected than ever before,” Obama said. “Ideas can cross oceans with a click of a button, companies can do business and compete with companies across the globe.”

She also explained that the Obama administration supports giving everyone the freedom to access information online in order to “discover the truth.”

“That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities and in our country and in our world,” Obama said. “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.”

“As my husband has said, we respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies,” she added, “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.”


Discussing citizen diplomacy

Following her speech, Obama discussed international education with students using the Highly Immersive Classrooms (HIC) at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) and the Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU).

“The format that we have here is incredibly unique,” Obama said about the cross-HIC discussion. “It highlights the importance the role of technology plays in opening up communities and cultures to one another.”

In Beijing, Peking University students and Americans studying abroad in China joined Obama. Attendees at Stanford included undergraduates and Ph.D. students contacted for their affiliation with the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies (FSI), students from the GSB and high school students from Bay Area schools.

“Study abroad shouldn’t just be for students from certain backgrounds,” Obama said. “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. 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.”

The conversation opened with a discussion about the importance of studying abroad for each of the students in attendance. Maddy Sides ’14, who has traveled to France and Guatemala, found that working in a foreign context was enriching at any age.

“Now that I’ve had that experience studying abroad, I’ve realized that that’s what I want to do in my professional life,” Sides said.

Obama emphasized that fear should not hold anyone back, calling studying abroad the “first step to overcoming the fear of making mistakes.”

“One thing that is important to consider is not letting fear be your guide, and that’s oftentimes what holds many young people back from doing fabulous things,” Obama explained. “[Parents] want you to be safe, but life is about making mistakes.”

Obama called the students the United States’ “greatest ambassadors” and emphasized the importance of educating this generation in foreign languages. She added, however, that expanding foreign language studies will take resources.

“We have to find the resources, and we have to engage our private sector as well — understand if they’re going to have the employees of the future who can operate in a global environment,” Obama said.

At the end of the videoconference, Adam Liu, a Stanford Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, summarized the discussion by explaining the the importance of understanding different cultures.

“We have all sorts of fancy models about why crises in international relations exist, but at the end of the day, all conversations boil down to a lack of understanding,” Liu said. “This conversation speaks to the need of having more and deeper conversations between countries in the world.”

Moderator Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar MA ’96 Ph.D. ’00, director of FSI, added a last word about cross-cultural understanding.

“Building that understanding doesn’t just help us avoid crises,” Cuéllar said, “but probably helps us understand ourselves better as well.”


Contact Madeleine Han at mhan95 ‘at’ stanford.edu or Kylie Jue at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Seunghwa Madeleine Han '17 is a sophomore at Stanford interested in English, international relations and the intersection of technology and human communication. She is currently a contributing writer for music and a former news desk editor at The Daily. Contact her at mhan95 'at' stanford.edu to find out more.

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