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President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in January 2011

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at Howard University urging American students to take advantage of study abroad opportunities in China. It’s all part of President Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” which aims to increase the number of students studying in China by making it more affordable through scholarships and programs. It was launched during President Obama’s 2009 trip to China, and unlike other initiatives, it relies solely on private-sector donations.

 

Michelle Obama speaking at Howard University last week

During her speech, the First Lady emphasized that “studying in countries like China is about so much more than just improving your own prospects in the global market. The fact is with every friendship you make and every bond of trust you establish you are shaping an image of America projected to the rest of the world.”

As someone who studied abroad in Hong Kong, I fully support this initiative because studying abroad is the most humbling, life-changing experience. In fact, I urge college students to take advantage of these opportunities to study abroad in China – or anywhere in the world. You will not regret it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to explain in words how much my life – and world perspective – changed after studying abroad. Yet I’ve come up with a few things that I learned during and after my experience:

1. Living in a city is different than visiting.
When you live in a city for an extended period of time, it’s a completely different experience than being a tourist for a few days. Living in a city forces you to mingle with the local people – in restaurants, marketplaces, riding the MTR or public transportation, and school. When this happens, you learn about their culture, mannerisms, values and language. For me, riding the MTR every single day was one of the greatest learning experiences for me. I observed and listened to the Hong Kong people, and after a while, I began to blend in with them. You don’t get to experience this as a tourist.

2. You develop a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude.
When you live in Asia, you witness all levels of living conditions from rural villages to metropolitan cities. I was given the opportunity to teach English in Zengcheng, China (see post here), backpack throughout Vietnam and Cambodia (post here), as well as visit thriving cities such as Seoul and Shanghai. When you travel to these cities, you develop a deep sense of appreciation for everything you have in America: freedom, democracy, a stable government, education, and endless opportunities to follow your aspirations and dreams. After witnessing some rural conditions, especially in Cambodia, it made me reflect on these simple freedoms that I took for granted beforehand.

3. China is now a major focus of the world – and the future.
China is a country filled with opportunity and adventure, especially now because it is a major focus of the world. Companies are moving to China while others are growing exponentially, the economy is booming, and opportunities are plentiful. By studying abroad in China, you can experience firsthand what it’s like to live there, and you can immerse yourself in this pool of opportunity.

4. Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language.
More people in the world speak Mandarin Chinese than any other language. English is the second most spoken language. While in college, I noticed that more and more students were enrolling in Mandarin classes, especially those from the USC Marshall School of Business.

5. Learning a new language can be beneficial for your job hunt after college.
What better way to learn another language than living in a city where it is spoken all around you? Textbooks and classrooms can only teach you so much. Using the language on a daily basis is KEY to becoming conversational and fluent. When you learn a new language, you become that much more multi-dimensional. It looks great on job applications.

6. Our world is becoming increasingly inter-connected.
With the internet and social media as powerful forces, our world is becoming increasingly “smaller and smaller” (not literally, but figuratively speaking). People are now connected more than ever, news travels fast, businesses and companies are working together overseas, and the need for people with international experience is a plus. When I was abroad, I met so many European and Americans living in Hong Kong with various companies. They all told me it was important to immerse yourself in the growing global economy. Studying abroad is one way to do this, so take advantage of these opportunities while you’re young!

7. You learn to become independent.
When I reflect on my time abroad, I think the biggest transformation was becoming more independent. A more independent thinker, decision-maker, and person overall. I will forever be grateful for this experience. When I left Los Angeles for Hong Kong, I didn’t know anybody. I had never lived anywhere else besides LA, and that is all I ever knew. I was going into unchartered territories. But when you’re living in a new city, you’re forced to make your own decisions. You have to ask for directions on the MTR. You have to ask taxi drivers to take you to your next destination. You have to order food at local restaurants, and ask others for good recommendations. It opens your mind and soul to your own personal capabilities, and it brings out the best of YOU.

8. You make lifelong friends and share a special bond.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for meeting the most incredible group of friends in Hong Kong. My experience wouldn’t be half as wonderful had I not met these people. We explored the city together, ate together, traveled around Asia together, and had unforgettable memories. You form a special bond with these people that nobody will understand because it is an experience that only you went through. Even after this experience, we share memories and get together as much as possible. We will forever share a very special bond that cannot be explained in words.

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