Who Knew Michelle Obama was a Study Abroad Advocate?

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The graduates of George Washington University earned a commencement speech by Michelle Obama this year. Earlier in the academic year Mrs. Obama challenged the university to complete 100,000 hours of community service, and if they were successful, she would deliver their commencement address.  So this past weekend, she delivered on her promise and gave an amazing speech to the graduates on the National Mall.  After acknowledging the incredible contributions of the students’ volunteer hours, Mrs. Obama used the rest of her speech to issue yet another challenge: “I’m just asking you to keep being you, to keep doing what you’re doing. Just take it global.”

Michelle Obama encourages these students, who are graduating to explore international service and work opportunities such as the Peace Corps since studying abroad as an undergrad is too late.  But she takes it a step farther and challenges them to encourage their younger peers to study abroad – expose themselves to other cultures in order to make themselves better people and America a better place.  She points out the fact that serving abroad not only helps out the country receiving the benefits of their volunteer work, but it helps America – it shows the people in that country the true heart, soul and generosity of Americans.  She acknowledged the countless benefits of studying abroad in this increasingly global world, especially among those who might not have access to opportunities such as international travel. “So many Americans either don’t have those opportunities or simply don’t consider them. And as interconnected as we are; as quickly as the 21st century global economy moves; we have to find ways to extend those opportunities to as many young people as possible.”

I love that Mrs. Obama uses her speech as an opportunity to speak about the importance of study abroad and international travel.  I only wish that she would also give similar speeches at schools like Howard or in other parts of the city and actually talk to those people who don’t consider those opportunities.  Not that students at GW won’t benefit from these words, but over half the undergraduates at GW already study abroad.  It’s almost like preaching to the choir.

Some of my favorite nuggets from the commencement address:

On ways to “take it global”: “It can mean continuing your own personal and professional growth by traveling far and wide. Or it can mean reaching back to convince the students behind you to try study abroad programs, especially students from communities and backgrounds who might not normally consider it.”

On the ultimate benefit of studying abroad and international travel: “In the end, the simple act of opening your mind and engaging abroad –- whether it’s in the heart of campus or in the most remote villages -– can change your definition of what’s possible.”

I am so glad that Michelle Obama, a woman who many people in our community look up to has stepped up as an advocate of studying abroad.  It makes my work seem a little more validated – like hey, I’m not the only one that thinks studying abroad is almost necessary for the success of our people as a community and as a country.  Thank you, Mrs. Obama and I hope to hear more about your ideas on study abroad and especially about how we can make it more accessible for those who traditionally don’t seek out those opportunities for any number of reasons.

For a full transcript of Mrs. Obama’s commencement address, click here.