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First Lady’s trip to China an opportunity for engagement, collaboration

The trip highlights opportunities for youth from the US and China to exchange knowledge and strengthen the ties between their countries.

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Members of SchoolJournalism.org’s Advisory Board recently participated in a press call with officials at the White House regarding the First Lady’s recent visit to China. This is the second in a series of stories written by Advisory Board members following the call.

First Lady Michelle Obama has always had an influential role on the nation’s youngest generation. She has shown a commitment to higher education for lower socioeconomic groups, an effort that directly connects to her personal childhood.

On March 19, the First Lady traveled to China to embark upon her newest initiative regarding global education connections. The First Lady’s White House blog series, which follows the trip, states that the purpose of her journey is to focus on “the power and importance of education,” an objective that had also been the center of her previous trips to Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Joining the First Lady in China is her mother, Marian Robinson, and two daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama. The family began in Beijing and continued to Xi’an before ending the trip in Chengdu. All in all, it sent an essential message to the youth of our nation: Connections with China are absolutely necessary for the long run.

In spite of uneasy diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the First Lady’s visit will not address foreign policies, such as human rights and trade disagreements. In a March 17 White House press call, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said, “There’s no question or dispute as to where the United States stands on a range of issues associated, for instance, with human rights. The president raises them publicly and privately with China’s leaders and will continue to do so.”

Instead, the First Lady’s visit will emphasize people-to-people connections and create an opportunity for her to break through the typical tension and mistrust that exists between the nations. To a certain degree, the trip also sends a message about the United States by providing a sense of optimism and hope for the future of U.S.-China relations. First of all, the presence of the First Lady’s mother and daughters demonstrates the significance of American family values through the eyes of three generations, which portrays the United States in a bright light to the Chinese, whose culture places heavy importance on familial ties. Moreover, the First Lady’s powerful and inspirational life story presents a favorable perspective of the culture of perseverance and diligence in the United States. In an analysis of the trip, Washington Post writer Krissah Thompson noted that the First Lady’s approach in China displays her “deft ability to mix diplomacy with her personal narrative.”

The First Lady’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, said in the March 17 press call that China is currently the fifth most popular destination for American students studying abroad. The United States hosts more students from China than from any other nation, Tchen said. As a result of the United States’ high regard for Chinese education, several initiatives have been established to bridge the two nations together. These have included the 100,000 Strong Initiative, which President Obama introduced in 2009 to increase the diversity of American students studying in China; a scholarship program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which was founded by Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman and resembles the Rhodes Scholarship program; and the U.S.-China Fulbright program. The First Lady’s trip focuses on bringing more attention to these essential connections, a significant message for young people of both nations. “One of the things the First Lady had wanted to do is to use these engagements overseas and when countries come here to visit as well to teach American young people about other countries,” Tchen said.

Although one of the First Lady’s primary objectives of the visit is to continue to encourage students to participate in study abroad programs, she has also expressed an interest in focusing on the role of technology in both education and global connections during her trip. There is no question that technology has immense powers to improve education. China and the United States—two technological hubs—can enhance the role of technology in each of their respective societies by learning from one another. And as the two nations come together through their mutual cultural exchange programs, establishing technological measures to ease cultural transitions will be vital, particularly with language education, points that were emphasized in the March 17 press call. In fact, evidence of this phenomenon already exists on the White House Blog, as well as LearningMedia and Discovery Education, two networks with which the First Lady has partnered in order to integrate technology into her visit and share her experiences with the American public.

From the First Lady’s experiences thus far, it is evident that China’s youth have incredible life stories and potential. Likewise, the young people of the United States arise from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Connecting these two societies can only engender powerful relations. In her blog post after visiting Peking University in Beijing, the First Lady wrote, “By studying here in China, [the American students] get to experience daily life in this country firsthand, practice their Chinese, and form lifelong friendships with Chinese students.”

As millennials enter the workforce, young people who have grown up under the influence of technology and rapid globalization are taking the future of the United States into their hands. And with countries such as China—which is the second-largest economy behind the United States, according to data from the World Bank—rising as world powers, the young generation faces a critical forthcoming era. Yet, although the initial instinct in response to China’s rise might be to internally focus on American industries and business practices, millennials must take the path less traveled and expand outwards. If China’s unyielding growth is truly inevitable, the greatest power the United States can have is a thorough comprehension of China. This generation must focus on creating long-lasting educational ties with the East Asian nation and eventually implement their newfound global knowledge to enhance the United States. The millennials must adopt a mindset that promotes collaboration with China over competition.

“The overall message of this trip will be on how important it is for our young people to know one another [and] have experience with one another,” Tchen said in the press call. As China grows, U.S. businesses are searching for prospects with knowledge about China’s economy and culture. If millennials develop an in-depth understanding of China, not only will their individual careers benefit, but also the U.S. global economy. But the only way to lead the United States on the right track is to start early.

Thus, it is essential that students take advantage of the global resources offered to them. Whether reading books about other nations, cultures and economies or studying abroad, grasping the outer world is crucial for the future of the United States. Furthermore, from a cultural standpoint, study abroad programs are tremendously beneficial for individuals in discovering both the world and themselves.

As the First Lady communicates her stories with the youth of America, perhaps she will inspire them to learn about the world beyond their local communities. Moreover, perhaps this trip to China will also lead to more influential national initiatives to widen connections between Chinese and American students, including a variety of study abroad programs that cater to American students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Fostering educational and youth connections with China is undoubtedly one of the most essential steps the United States can take to improve the future of our youth, nation and diplomatic relations.

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