MASHA GONCHAROVA/THE HOYA Michelle Obama encourages students to study abroad.
Michelle Obama encourages students to study abroad.

As Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the White House Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama stepped on stage at Howard University to encourage students to study abroad in the dignitary’s home country.

“Studying in countries like China isn’t only about your prospects in the global marketplace,” Obama said. “It’s not just about whether you can compete with your peers in other countries to make America stronger. It’s also about whether you can come together and work with them to make our world stronger.”

Obama discussed major commitments to Chinese cultural exchange as part of the 100,000 Strong Initiative announced by her husband in 2009. In her opening remarks she stated that private sector pledges would provide more than $2.25 million to support an increase in the numbers of American students who study in China by 2014.

China, which is one of the top five host countries to American students, has offered more than 10,000 scholarships funded by the Chinese government called bridge scholarships that cover all in-country costs. The 100,000 Strong Initiative aims to bolster this effort, and also expand it to included even younger students.

“[Studying abroad is] how, student by student, we develop that habit of cooperation,” Obama said.

Some students said that they were inspired by Obama’s remarks.

“As an exchange student from China to America, I have seen that cultural exchange is the only way to get closer for sure, because you learn so much more than just in books of the subtle cultural differences,” Yifei Zhao, a student from Shanghai currently studying at the Sidwell Friends High School, said. “That is part of the educational exchange: if I could express the relationship between the ways we attend class, go out, or just live, then I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Other students, however, prioritize finishing college as soon as possible above living in foreign countries.

“Maybe after I get a job I’d go abroad for a year,” Howard University student Daniel Jacques said.

Empathizing with students who feel that studying abroad is not an option for them, Obama recalled her college experience, which she felt focused on earning a degree quickly above study abroad experiences.

“Maybe [students] may feel like study abroad is something that only rich kids do, or maybe kids who go to certain colleges; they’re the only ones who do that,” Obama said.

The panel following Obama’s speech, which consisted of four high school and college students who had lived in China, sought to curb these fears and discussed the possibility of studying abroad without high costs. Panelist Lyric Carter, a junior at the Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, went on a six-week program in Beijing partially funded by the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth.

“It encouraged me to go out and try anything now,” she said of the program.

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