Note: This post is part of a series authored by First Lady Michelle Obama to share her visit to China with young people in the U.S. You can read all of the First Lady's posts at WhiteHouse.gov/First-Lady-China-Trip.
Today, I had the pleasure of visiting the No. 7 School here in Chengdu, an extraordinary high school that uses the power of technology to bring educational opportunities to students across southwest China.
More than 5,000 high school students attend the No. 7 School in person each day – and 42,000 more high school students from 182 schools in smaller cities and rural areas attend remotely. Classrooms here in Chengdu are equipped with large screens – and students from across the region can beam in and take part in the same lessons (and they even get assigned the same homework too). Many of the students who attend classes remotely are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the education they get at the No. 7 school gives them a better chance of possibly being accepted into college.
The average day here at the No. 7 School starts at 7:30am and goes until 5:00pm (and that includes classes and extracurricular activities like sports and music). Much of the students’ time in class is spent preparing for an exam called the GaoKao that they take during their last year of high school. Unlike in the U.S., where students get accepted to college based on various factors like grades, SAT/ACT scores, extracurricular activities, essays and recommendations, in China, the only thing colleges really look at is a student’s score on the GaoKao.
Chinese families and students tend to place a very high value on education. Many parents in China make great sacrifices to give their children the best education possible, and many students study long hours to get a good score on the GaoKao.
I started my visit at the No. 7 School by speaking with about 600 students in their school auditorium – and about 12,000 of the remote students participated by video. I talked with the students about how, when we live so far from each other, it’s easy for us to develop all kinds of misconceptions about each other – but it often turns out that we have so much in common. I cited my own experience growing up in America as an example and pointed out that many parts of my story – my humble background, the closeness of my family, my parents’ determination to see my brother and I get a good education – are similar to their life stories.
I also spoke with the students about our values as Americans, particularly our passionate belief in what we call "the American Dream" – the idea that it shouldn’t matter where you live, or how much money your parents have, or what race or religion or ethnicity you are. Instead, if you work hard and believe in yourself, then you should have a chance to succeed.
Now of course, living up to these ideals isn’t always easy, and there have been times in our history when we have fallen short. As you know, many decades ago, there were actually laws that allowed discimination against African American people like me. But over time, ordinary citizens decided that those laws were unfair, and they led the civil rights movement to change them. Slowly but surely, they succeeded -- and today, just 50 years later, my husband and I are President and First Lady of the United States.
Finally, I spoke about the basic rights our Constitution grants to all our people, such as the right to speak freely and worship as you choose. Like many other countries in the world, however, China restricts the free exercise of speech and religion in various ways. And as I said in an earlier blog post, while every country will ultimately make its own decisions about these issues, in America, we view these rights as universal human rights that belong to all people in all countries. And my husband and I often speak about these values when we travel, because we believe that's the best way to foster a dialogue with other countries through which we can learn about their beliefs and share our own. That's how we build the bonds of understanding that will be so vital for addressing our shared challenges in the years ahead.
After my speech, I had the pleasure of participating in an English class with about 40 students here in Chengdu and over 18,000 students from 160 schools watching remotely. We had a lively discussion on topics including the following: how schools can encourage creativity in students; how students can deal with competition and failure; the value of studying abroad; the importance of challenging yourself and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone; and my impressions of China and Chinese culture.
I then had a chance to observe, and then participate in, a Tai Chi class. Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that is centuries old. It involves slow, flowing movements and a focus on your breathing. It is a truly beautiful form of physical activity, and I loved giving it a try.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the No. 7 School, and I learned a great deal from the terrific students there.