What a great moment for me to be able to come and see all of you and have this chance to thank you for participating in this program. And I thank everyone here at the State Department who works on it. Thank you so much, Maura, for you and your team’s leadership. We really believe in this effort and it would not be possible if you did not decide you wanted to participate and applied to be considered. And I hope it’s been an exciting and rewarding year for you and all of your fellow students from more than 30 countries.
I was listening to the introduction and I really was struck by the last word that Maura used, which was “courageous.” I don’t think I would have been as courageous when I was your age to leave my home and go someplace that seemed really far away. So I join in commending you for taking this opportunity to see what it was like in the United States. And I also want to thank the host families for opening up their homes to each and every one of you. We obviously could not run this program without them.
And I’m thinking about when this program started, it was back in 2003 and there were only 160 students. This year, we have 875, and there are more than 4,400 young men and women who have already participated from nearly 40 countries. And it is really important that we arrange for you to stay in touch with one another and to be part of this network of alumni from the YES program. And in the coming year, the State Department will continue our pilot program to send American high school students to your countries and to have a similar experience to what you have had here in our country.
You’ve had a busy year from some of what I’ve heard about your experiences. You’ve seen our own noisy democracy in action, where there’s a lot of debating and discussing, and I hope none of you have watched cable news, but you know that it airs conflicting opinions, sometimes diametrically opposed not only to each other, but to any known fact – (laughter) – that you could possibly find.
But I hope that you do take back a perspective on not just the United States, but really, more importantly, our people, because obviously, we have an incredibly diverse country which we are very, very proud of. And in that diversity, we think, lies one of the sources of our strength and the kind of future that we’re trying to chart. And so we welcome the involvement of not only people who come in programs like this, but people who come to visit for just a short period of time, but who share their views. Because we think it adds to our own understanding and creates a much better dialogue among all of the people who have similar ideas about the kind of positive future we wish to shape.
I came into politics many years ago because I care deeply about what happens to children, and I think every child should have the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential. We are endowed with inalienable rights, as the United States believes in its founding documents. But people have different talents. They have different experiences. They have different genetic makeups, although genetically we’re all about 99.9 percent the same. But we come with superficial differences, superficial in terms of eye color or skin color or height or hair color. We come with cultural and historical differences of religion, of race, of ethnicity – things that separate us in a very superficial way that doesn’t really get to our common humanity. But it is all too easy to put our differences ahead of our commonalities.
And part of what I really believe, as I work on difficult problems around the world, is if we can get people to start looking at each other with mutual respect, with a mutual awareness that we do have so much more in common, treating someone as you would wish to be treated, not as the other but as a fellow human being, it’s not going to solve all the problems but it creates a more – more possibilities that we can find some common ground. And I hope that each of you goes back home with the idea that even in your families, your neighborhoods, your communities, there’s – there are opportunities for trying to find those commonalities, for bringing people together, seeking that common ground.
And I hope that you’ll have the chance to influence the course of events in your own countries. As you continue your education, as you think about what your passions are, as you build families, begin work, engage in all kinds of activities that will build a stronger future for your own people.
So I hope that you will take the advantage of the alumni network to stay in touch with us so that we don’t lose track. And I guess we’ve created some kind of a website where people can communicate and know what is happening with one another. And I hope that if you have the time or the inclination, you’ll share some of your thoughts with us and you’ll provide some of your feedback and ideas, both about this experience, but also even more generally about ways to create those connections.
I did a lot of work on the peace process in Northern Ireland. And it was a conflict that had its roots 800 years ago, but it became especially violence-prone in the last 35-plus years. And I remember working with a group of women from the two communities that were at odds against each other. They shared the same race. If they were walking across the stage, you would think that they were probably all related, but they had different religions. There were Catholics and there were Protestants. And there was a huge gulf between them. They lived in different neighborhoods, they went to different schools, they didn’t socialize. In fact, they rarely even met one another across the divide that separated their respective communities.
So back in the 1990s, when my husband and I began to work on trying to see if we could contribute to bridging those gaps, I held a meeting in Belfast in Northern Ireland. And it was just for women. I invited Catholic women and Protestant women to come into the same room and to sit around a table and to see whether or not they would even talk to each other. It was very awkward. It was incredibly discomforting.
And then finally, one woman looked across the table and she said, “Do you worry about your boy when he goes out at night?” And the other woman said, “You mean my son?” She said, “Do you worry about your son when he goes out at night?” She said, “Of course I worry about him. I worry that somebody will attack him or somebody will shoot him and I’ll never see him again alive.” The first woman said, “I worry about that, too.” Another woman said, “Do you worry about your husband when he goes to work in the morning?” The woman said, “Of course I worry about him. He has to go through some neighborhoods that are not our people, and I don’t know what is going to happen to him when he walks through and comes home at night.”
And all of the sudden, around a common threat, which was sectarian violence, there began a conversation about what these women – these wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, what they worried about. And they found out they worried about very much the same things. And I have found, in working in conflict areas across the world, if you can get past the rhetoric, the fear, the misunderstanding, the hatred, there’s a lot of the same worries. And I hope that each of you will think about how you can help that conversation start or continue and give the people around you a chance to find some common ground with others who they may not believe they have anything in common with at all.
You’ve spent a year in this country. You’ve lived with a host family, people you never knew before you arrived. You’ve gone to school with people you had no reason to believe you would ever meet. And just like any group of people, you liked some and you didn’t like others. You got to know some better than others. But it’s all that process of reaching out, getting beyond your own experience, and finding that we really do share this same planet and we really do have a stake in the future.
So I thank you for being courageous. I thank you for coming. I hope it was a good experience. I hope that you will share your thoughts with us about it. And as I travel from country to country, if I’m in your country, I hope I’ll get a chance to see you there, and perhaps to share a word or two. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
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