Minister Sarieva, President Wachtel, Faculty and Students: Good afternoon, and welcome to you all.
I am delighted to be here in Bishkek and to be the first U.S. Secretary of State to travel to all five Central Asian countries on a single trip.
Today, we inaugurate a new facility at a flagship institution that is transforming educational opportunities for students and teachers across the region. This new campus is special because it’s the first private construction project in Central Asia that is clean and green all the way – with geothermal heating and cooling, state-of-the art sewage and irrigation systems, and the highest standard of energy efficiency in the region.
Success has many fathers, but I want to single out one in particular – my good friend, George Soros. I understand that George couldn’t be with us today, but I’ll just share that I’ve known him for a long time, and let me tell you: His commitment to good governance, freedom, and opportunity really is inspiring.
He was born in Budapest as the specter of Nazism was falling over Europe. He hid with sympathetic neighbors as the Panzer tanks rolled down cobbled streets and soldiers searched for Jews to deport to death camps. Thankfully, George escaped, but his childhood experience stayed with him and the desire to help others enjoy the benefits of freedom has been a driving force in his life.
George was there a quarter century ago when Eastern Europe rose up against Communism. In his native Hungary, he bought photocopy machines so dissident political parties could print materials that were banned. He was there when extreme nationalists sought to drive ethnic minorities out of the former Yugoslavia, supporting the right of all to live in peace regardless of religion and nationality. And he was there at the founding of this University in beautiful and dynamic Bishkek.
The American University of Central Asia is the gold standard for teaching students to think critically, challenge the conventional wisdom, and dare to ask hard questions. This is not a place for the indifferent or the cynical. It is a place for daring to be the absolute best you can possibly be.
And that matters today more than ever, because the global economy is changing, generating a strong demand for workers who have up-to-date skills and a good education and little demand for those who don’t. But we cannot prosper or compete without contributions from all. This means that unless we invest in our children; unless we open the doors of knowledge to all; unless we rise above discrimination and intolerance and work together, we’re going to grow steadily poorer together. That is why education is so important, and why the United States is committed to supporting AUCA for the long haul.
I am proud that my government has already provided more than $30 million to this university, and that support will continue. We have sponsored more than 100 scholarships, including for Kyrgyz students and more than 250 Afghan students. And let me tell you: We couldn’t be more pleased with the investment. AUCA isn’t just a model – it’s a magnet for the most talented students from Bishkek to Kabul.
And that matters for a simple reason: We live in a world that is changing faster and becoming more interconnected than ever before. In the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from an era where power lived in hierarchies to one where power lives in networks. I expect that every one of you here today has a mobile device. And those devices represent a lot more than your ability to put a picture on Facebook or Instagram. They are one of the most powerful instruments of change ever invented, because you can communicate with anyone, anywhere, all the time.
The question is – how will you use that ability? Yes, you can be heard, but what will you say?
In our era, we face an array of challenges, from violent extremism to curbing greenhouse gas emissions to promoting shared prosperity. I will say more about those challenges later this week in Astana. But I want to emphasize to you today that education is the key to solving all of them.
We all know that education is a lifelong process, but it must begin in the earliest days. In the United States, we have been pushing to expand access to kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, so that children start learning as soon as they are able. Globally, one of the Millennium Development Goals has been to ensure that every child – girls as well as boys – is able to attend primary school. Enormous progress has been made in that direction, and that’s the good news.
But other areas are more troublesome, and this is true in my country as well as many of yours.
For example, we have to be sure that between the time our children enter school each morning and the time they leave in the afternoon, they actually learn something. Sitting in a classroom is fine, but really getting an education demands more.
There is no short cut to investing in good teachers, training them properly, and paying them what they’re worth – and, believe me, a good teacher is as valuable as anyone can be. We must also find better ways to incorporate new technology and teaching methods into the learning process; because just giving a child a tablet or a laptop is not enough. We have to instill the desire to know more, and the belief that success in school will translate into success in life.
Another major task we face in education today is to strengthen the connection between report cards and paychecks. As this remarkable gathering reflects, there are fine colleges and universities in Central Asia. But there’s a troubling gap between the skills that schools teach and the expertise the job market demands. Many of the young people in Central Asia graduate with degrees that leave them ill-suited for available positions. This gap is as frustrating to our students as it is to potential employers – and we need to bridge it.
Now, given the number of young people in the region, this should be a fixable problem. In the United States, we have developed a strong community college system that includes hands-on career counseling from the private sector. Even that is not enough, which is why President Obama has proposed to our Congress the idea that every student who applies to community college should be allowed to attend, regardless of their ability to pay tuition. And we intend to do more to connect our community college system with academic partners in Central Asia.
So we’re approaching this issue with the urgency it deserves. And we are just as determined to help you seize the opportunities that a world-class education provides.
That’s why we’re supporting more international exchanges with Central Asia. Over the past quarter century, more than 25,000 students from your countries have visited the United States to study, conduct research, and enhance their knowledge and skills. And over the next five years, we want to see that number keep growing to more than 31,000. We’re also strengthening our partnerships with all five Central Asian nations to promote literacy, distance learning, and English language training, including for low-income students and those with disabilities. These partnerships will help even more students prepare for admission to colleges and universities in America. And believe me, these programs are having a transformative impact, and not just on the individuals involved.
One of the great rewards of being Secretary of State is getting to see with my own eyes how many good people there are out there every single day trying to help others.
I’ve actually learned about a few of you.
I’m inspired by Seinep Dyikanbaeva, a graduate of AUCA who is using her law degree to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. She is a proud member of the Human Rights Advisory Board in Kyrgyzstan and a voice of conscience and conviction from her country’s vibrant civil society.
For example, I’m inspired by Gulru Azamova, who studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then returned to her home country of Tajikistan to start an NGO that strengthens democratic institutions at the local level.
And I’m inspired by Aigul Seralinova , who studied at Washington University in St. Louis on a Fulbright scholarship and now works for the OSCE in Kazakhstan on combatting domestic violence and developing social programs for female prisoners.
Of course, another reason that education is important is that informed and aware citizens provide the foundation for democracy, which in turn is the foundation for lasting stability and prosperity. Make no mistake: Strong and stable democratic systems based on the rule of law are the key to progress for any country in the 21st century.
Here in Kyrgyzstan, you know this. You just completed another round of successful parliamentary elections. And the road ahead will not be easy. But we celebrate democracy not because it is easy or perfect, for it is obviously neither of those things. We celebrate democracy because it is rooted in the will of the people and does a better job than any other form of government in respecting the rights of individuals, solving problems peacefully, and building enduring prosperity.
There are few ideas more powerful – more infused with universal aspiration – than democracy. But what I want to emphasize to you this afternoon is that democracy can never be taken for granted. It is a pursuit that must be renewed and revitalized by each generation. And it requires us all to transform our sense of right and wrong into action, to nurture a strong civil society that can hold our governments accountable, and to stand up for all our fellow citizens, including men and women of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.
I was in Philadelphia recently, which is where America’s democratic journey began with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Our Founding Fathers had finished their hard work when Ben Franklin, tired at the end of the day, walked down the steps of Independence Hall. A woman came up to him and asked, “Tell us Dr. Franklin: What do we have, a monarchy or a republic?” And he looked at her and answered: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
That sentiment is more real today than at any time I can remember. The American University of Central Asia has provided thousands of students in Central Asia with a world-class education. Your job is to make the most of that opportunity. And I can promise, that as you make the attempt, the United States will be there as a friend every step of the way.
Congratulations to you all, good luck, and God bless.