Remarks at the Airbnb Luncheon for the U.S. Department of State’s Gilman Scholarship Program

Nathan, thank you. Thank you for that very spirited introduction and for your story. I’ve often quoted many Chinese proverbs myself. I was thinking about the one you just quoted and I – it sort of struck me that I guess it depends on where those thousand miles are. If it’s across the Gobi Desert or the Sahara, I’d rather read the books. But that’s okay. (Laughter.)

I want you all to know that I began my morning today at the dentist and my mouth and tongue are just cutting in at the right moment. (Laughter.) It’s beginning to work.

Thank you for bringing your experiences as a Gilman Scholar to everybody. I think what you shared with us is a terrific summary of what brings us here today. I don’t know where that town is in New Jersey, but since I’m not running for president, I can say that in honesty. (Laughter.)

I want to thank Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan, whose leadership you see has just been superb and who is constantly bringing people together around one initiative or another to help us carry our message, protect our interests, and build relationships around the world in doing both of those former two things. So it’s a year-round effort to advance educational and cultural diplomacy, and Evan is doing it just the way it ought to be done, superbly, and I appreciate it.

I’m also very, very happy to see Brian Chesky here, who is – I don’t know if you noticed – walking with a special shoe on his right foot because he was working out and dropped a 45-pound barbell on it. And he still has his toe, so this is a man who has more than one talent. (Laughter.) But we were talking on the way over here – we were chatting, and he was relating to me the extraordinary story of the beginning. You want to pick an entrepreneur with an entrepreneurial golden touch, here he is: a guy who couldn’t afford his rent and he and his roommate put out some air mattresses for some people to come in and pay for the privilege of staying there. And lo and behold, now a million people and a growing business hiring talent all around the world and being successful. It really makes a lot of points all at the same time, and I really want to applaud him for it.

Perhaps on a personal level I think it’s a great thing because I’m rarely ever at home and my wife is usually in Pittsburgh or Boston, so our place in D.C. could be a pretty good – (laughter) – pretty good deal. I could promise you a dog that doesn’t bite and I promise you the best security you’ve ever had anywhere, so not a bad deal.

But in all seriousness, we are really proud and grateful to have Airbnb as our partner in this effort in order to help people to be able to go overseas and study. We take pride in the fact that about 300,000 Americans do that now, and they’re hitting the books on foreign campuses all around the world. But that may sound like a lot – let me just tell you something: It’s a few drops in the bucket compared to the nearly 1 million students that are enrolled at U.S. universities. And we can do better and we ought to do better.

And if America is going to continue to play the role that I have found over these three and three-quarter years is so critical on a global basis, we need to understand the world. We need people who come into public life who have a better sense of the culture and the history and the interests – the vision, if you will, of a country that we talk about and make policies about. I’ve always said that in global diplomacy it is critical not just to see the world through that American lens but to see it through the lens of the people that we’re trying to make friends with or deal with or contemplating even the potential of conflict with.

So as a nation we need to learn about these different cultures, about what people overseas are thinking about the world and their future and us and how what we do affects them, and have a better understanding of it. This is sort of common sense, I think, but it doesn’t get applied every single day in the affairs of our nation. And to act responsibly, we’ve got to build a healthy degree of trust between ourselves and other people. Study abroad is critical because it really helps young people to learn about these other places, obviously, but it also helps you to think about what might work more effectively here and to get other ideas about how we might be doing things where somebody might actually be doing something in a more thoughtful or rapid or efficient way than we had contemplated.

Now, there’s another reason why this is important. I’ll tell you, countless of my colleagues in this business of diplomacy – I think particularly of the late Saud al-Faisal, who was the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia for 40-plus years. I can’t tell you how many times he talked to me about being a Princeton – a proud Princeton graduate and what he learned there and what he learned about our country. And he cared about this country; he had a home in Los Angeles and he would travel here frequently because of the affection that he got for this country while he was a student. Countless environment ministers, finance ministers, foreign ministers, prime ministers, presidents proudly tell me either that they spent a period of time here in the United States studying when they were young or that their kids are now students. And I’m proud to say, having represented Massachusetts for 29 years, that many of them tell me they’re at one place or another in my home state.

So if we’re going to solve climate change, if we’re going to deal with the problem of poverty in so many parts of the world, if we’re going to deal with the youth bulge of literally 1.5 billion people 15 years old or less who need to go to school – and they need to go to school not 10 years from now; they need to go to school now – and if we’re going to deal with these challenges and conflict and violent religious extremism, which stems from the misunderstandings and exploitation of legitimate religion, then we need to make certain that we are really understanding the nature of the challenge in a world that is so different from the world that I grew up in – world that I even grew up in in the United States Senate. I served on the Commerce Committee. I remember what it was like when we suddenly were dealing with the telecommunications bill of 1996 and we barely talked about or thought about data information and data transmission and data management as we were stuck in the age of telephony. And that bill was dead, folks, almost two months after it was signed into law because of the pace at which change is moving.

That’s why this idea of Airbnb, this idea of studying abroad, this concept that we’ve come together here today is so critical. I’m really delighted that we have Airbnb’s involvement in this. Brian, thank you for being engaged beyond just the business of business but in the world and in seeing the virtues of this interconnectedness. And in seeing the virtues of this interconnectedness.

And I know that it was mentioned earlier – this past June in Beijing during the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, that’s when Airbnb announced its support for the Gilman – Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship Program in order to help more students study in China. And with their backing, we’re now going to be able to send an additional number of students. But importantly, I’ll bet you this sets an example to other companies that need to be engaged in similar efforts.

So in the past 15 years, with the support of our colleagues at the Institute for International Education, we’ve welcomed more than 19,000 Gilman Scholars drawn from every race, region, and walk in life who have come here. And what has been particularly distinctive about this initiative is that we’ve sent students to many nontraditional locales, the most popular destination being China, where Nathan got to go.

But this scholarship and this effort is exactly what we need to be doing in this shrinking world. And I am happy to share this with everybody here today.

The great British writer, H.G. Wells, once observed that human history is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe. When I think about the challenge of the conflicts that we’re dealing with in Libya, in Yemen, in Syria, Afghanistan, and you can run a list, and you look at the development challenges in various parts of the world, it is clear to all of us that H.G. Wells had it right and this is a race that we have to win. And today we’re making a contribution to that effort. We’re laying a foundation for victory. And I thank you all for being part of that. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Source: U.S. State Department.

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