Why Young People Should Study Abroad According to Michelle Obama
In 2014, then First Lady Michelle Obama gave an inspiring and powerful speech to American and Chinese students at the Stanford Center at Peking University on the importance of study abroad. Her speech remains incredibly relatable to young people at this historical moment. With the current state of the world filled with phobias and conflicts between countries, study abroad is more essential than ever for building friendships and understanding between young people of different cultures.
Let’s break down Michelle Obama’s passionate speech about why students from around the world should, when they have the opportunity, join a study abroad program.
1. Study abroad is the key to success in our Global Economy
Faculty-led Study Abroad Program with the University of Newcastle.
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 work place isn’t just about getting good grades or test scores in schools (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.”
2. Study abroad is a means to improving the world together
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 is 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.
3. Studying abroad should not only be for the wealthy
But still, too many students never have the chance of study abroad, 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 make our country vibrant and strong.
4. You can be an ambassador for your own country
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, 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.
Be an ambassador of your country abroad.
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.
5. But ultimately, you don’t have to get on a plane to start studying abroad
I want to tell you a story of 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 abroad, 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 really the power of technology and 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.
I believe that all people deserve the opportunity to fulfill their highest potential as we were able to do in the United States. And as you learn about new cultures and form new friendships during your time abroad, 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.
Watch the full video of Michelle Obama’s speech here:
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