Culture & Society

Michelle Obama: The Value of a Global Education

At the Stanford Center at Peking University, the First Lady discusses the value of studying abroad.

March 24, 2014

| by Barbara Buell


Michelle Obama

Studying in a different country gives students the chance to immerse themselves in another culture, shared first lady Michelle Obama. (Photo courtesy of Stanford University)

Michelle Obama promoted study abroad programs during a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing on Saturday, then encouraged Stanford and local high school students sitting in Palo Alto to be “citizen diplomats” during a high-tech videoconference.

In her remarks before the conversation with students, the first lady said that study abroad is a “vital part of our foreign policy.”

“Study abroad is about shaping the future of your countries” and the world we all share, she said.

Studying in a different country gives students the chance to immerse themselves in another culture, she said.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Obama spoke before an audience of 170 students, scholars, and alumni at the Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU) in Beijing — her only scheduled public appearance during a trip to China with her daughters.

“Two great universities, two great countries. The symbolism behind this event is truly remarkable,” said Xinkai Mao, MBA ‘14. “My wife went to PKU and I go to Stanford. What a connection!”

Mao attended the event with Stanford Graduate School of Business classmate Paul Chen, MBA ‘14. Both lead a China study trip for fellow students starting Sunday.

Max Baucus, Washington’s ambassador to Beijing, and a graduate of Stanford and the university’s law school, reinforced Obama’s message of personal learning and diplomacy, recounting his own exchange studies in France.

“I am standing here because of my experience at a study abroad program,” he said.

Thirty-five years after the normalization of relations with China, the U.S. is supporting 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,” Obama said. “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 largest group of foreign students enrolled at Stanford today are Chinese — 860 students, up from about 600 two years ago.

“You can’t learn what the first lady is talking about only through books,” said Chien Lee, BSMS ‘75, MBA ‘79, a former Stanford trustee and SCPKU’s lead donor. “You have to have an in-person experience. That’s what helps you appreciate the subtleties and differences. The center provides a place for people to have that exchange.”

Milestone for SCPKU

The first lady’s visit came the day after the second anniversary of SCPKU’s opening. The center made Stanford the first American university to construct a building for its own use on a major Chinese university campus.

Obama’s conversation with students sitting at Stanford’s campus showcased the “highly immersive classrooms” at SCPKU and the Graduate School of Business. The rooms are identical, and use high-definition video technology to give participants in both locations the feeling that they are in the same room. The rooms will be used to conduct seminars between scholars at Stanford and PKU, and will also be used by the business school to expand the reach of its faculty.

The classroom features a curved wall of video screens and allows seamless conversation and real-time data sharing with participants on different continents.

“Through the wonders of modern technology, our world is more connected than ever before,” Obama said. “Ideas can cross oceans with the click of a button. You don’t need to get on a plane to be a citizen diplomat. 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.”

Sitting in the immersive classroom at SCPKU, Obama encouraged students to use all the resources at their disposal to become well-informed global citizens and decision makers, and to enrich the relationship between the U.S. and China.

“The creation of a global citizen is a critical mission of the great universities in modern times,” said alumnus David Chao, MBA ‘93, who manages a global venture capital firm and attended Obama’s speech. “When you have a global citizen with empathy, someone pushing the nuclear button is highly unlikely. It’s especially relevant, when you see what’s going on in Ukraine right now with people refusing to talk.”

From Neurology to Energy and Art

Stanford and Peking University have a long and growing collaboration that began with scholarly exchanges in the 1970s and student exchanges thereafter.

In remarks welcoming the first lady, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Director of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, spoke of SCPKU’s mission and its relationship to China’s elite Peking University, also known as Beida.

“Stanford scholars — like their counterparts at Beida — are constantly seeking a deeper appreciation of different societies and their histories,” Cuéllar said. “That leads to stronger relationships — geographically, politically and culturally. We are striving for a world that is ever more capable of transcending its differences. Stanford’s special relationship with Beida is a shining example of these ideals.”

Nine Stanford teaching and research programs, including the School of Medicine’s Asian Liver Center, the Bing Overseas Studies Program, and the Graduate School of Business, have located operations at SCPKU. Seventeen faculty fellows from departments as diverse as neurology, art, bioengineering and music, have conducted research at the center. SCPKU has also hosted 32 workshops or seminars on topics as varied as “Leveraging PCs to Advance Learning in China’s Rural Schools,” “Energy in China,” and “New Urban Formations: Comparative Urbanization.”

The first cohort of 20 Stanford undergraduates to study at the center will arrive for their 10-week program March 31. The center already has been home to a meeting of U.S.-China officials discussing North Korea’s nuclear program and a conference of electrical engineers reviewing Technology Standardization. China 2.0, a forum on venture capital and entrepreneurship organized by the Graduate School of Business, will be held at the center April 11.

The Future

Looking ahead, SCPKU aspires to tackle intellectual questions that address not just the political economy and culture of China, but also the challenges that arise as China engages other parts of the world in trade. China’s geopolitical interests and actions in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia are all important questions that Stanford faculty want to address. “The center can and should be a research destination for Stanford faculty whose work touches on China but is not necessarily solely focused on the country or region,” said Jean Oi, professor of political science, director of SCPKU, and a driving force behind the center’s creation.

As SCPKU activity and scholarship continues to evolve, technology also will allow its intellectual content to reach a wider audience beyond the Beijing campus.

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