Remarks at the American University of Central Asia Commemorative Ceremony

John Kerry
Secretary of State
American University of Central Asia
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
October 31, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: I did this once before. (Laughter.) Minister Sarieva, an outstanding graduate of this university, we’re really proud of her work. And President Wachtel, faculty, students, all of you here, everybody with their smartphone pointing at me today – (laughter) – I’ve never seen so much energy in two introducers as you have. You are amazing. I think I’ll bring you back to the United States with me. (Applause.) Thank you very much. In fact, I can feel the energy in this room.

Salamatsyzdarby. (Applause.) I’m working on it. As you can tell, I’m really fluent. (Laughter.)

I am delighted to be here in Bishkek. I mean that. It’s very exciting for me, and I also get to be the first U.S. Secretary of State to travel to all five Central Asian countries on a single trip. And this is my first stop. (Applause.)

This is really very, very special. And I think everybody feels the energy. I certainly want to thank you for the welcome when I came in. I love your tee shirts, “Welcome to the AUCA Campus.”

Today, we get to joint together to inaugurate a flagship institution that is transforming educational opportunities for students and for teachers all across the region. And this new campus is special because it’s the first private construction project in Central Asia that is clean green all the way – that means geothermal heating and cooling, state-of-the art sewage, irrigation systems, and the highest standard of energy efficiency in the entire region. So congratulations to all of you. (Applause.)

Now, as everybody knows, success usually has many parents. In this case, it has a father. And he’s a friend of mine, I want to single out in particular, George Soros. And I heard him mentioned earlier today – (applause). I’m very sorry that George was not able to be here today. We actually met at the State Department a month or so ago. He was looking forward to being here very, very much, but he wasn’t able to travel at the last minute. But I just want to let you all know, I have known George Soros for a long time. And let me tell you: His commitment to good governance, to freedom, to opportunity is absolutely inspiring.

He was born in Budapest as the cloud, the specter of Nazism was falling over Europe. And he hid with sympathetic neighbors as the Panzer tanks rolled down cobbled streets and as soldiers went house to house searching for Jews in order to deport them to the death camps. Thankfully, obviously, George escaped, but his childhood – this was a childhood experience – it stayed with him. And from that has come this enormous desire that he has fulfilled to be able to help others to enjoy the force of freedom in their lives.

George was there a quarter of a century ago when Eastern Europe rose up against communism. And in his native Hungary, he bought photocopy machines so that 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. And he was there supporting the right of all people to be able to live in peace regardless of religion and nationality. And he was there at the founding of this university in beautiful and dynamic Bishkek. And we need to say thank you to him. (Applause.)

This university, the American University of Central Asia, is the gold standard for teaching you students to think critically, to challenge the conventional wisdom – not to just be told something by a teacher, but to think about it and work it through your mind and challenge the teacher to substantiate the proposition that that teacher is giving you. That’s real education. This is not a place for the indifferent or for the cynical. This is a place for daring to be the absolute best that you can possibly be.

And that matters today. Believe me, as somebody involved in public life, I came yesterday from seven hours of negotiations with 19 countries sitting around trying to figure out how to stop a war in Syria. It matters how people think. It matters what their input is. It matters how they see the world. It matters whether they have a vision of tolerance, of peace, of possibilities for the individual. All of these things are what come with a great education. It matters today because the global economy is changing at an extraordinary pace. Life is changing at an extraordinary pace. And there is a strong demand for workers, for leaders, CEOs, for new companies, for jobs, for people who have up-to-date skills and a good education. And I have to tell you, sadly, there is very little demand for those who don’t.

It is the difference, literally, between what kind of life you will be able to lead and what you may be condemned to. This means that unless we invest in our children, unless we open the doors of knowledge to everybody, unless we rise above discrimination and intolerance and work together, then we will steadily grow poorer together. That is why education is so critical, and it is why the United States is so particularly committed to supporting AUCA for the long haul.

I am proud to say that my government has already provided more than $30 million to this university, including nearly 6 million in financing through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. And I want you to know that support will continue. (Applause.) We have given more than 1,000 scholarships, including for Kyrgyz and for Afghan students. I just had a chance to meet some of the Afghans who were here. (Applause.) And I got to tell you, we couldn’t be more pleased with this investment. AUCA is not just a model – it is a magnet for the most talented students from Bishkek to Kabul.

And that matters for a very simple reason. I mentioned a moment ago the pace at which the world is changing. It is literally more interconnected than ever before. Everybody listens to everybody or sees everybody – everyday, all the time. Whether it’s Instagram or tweeting or Facebook or Skyping, whatever it is – the world is connected. And in the blink of an eye, we have gone from an era where power used to be very centered in the hierarchy, starting at the top and working down; but today, because of those rectangular things you’re holding up and pointing at me, because everybody has a smartphone – even in the poorest countries, people have these, ability to communicate.

So now, power is much more diversified. It’s much more horizontal. And as a result, it is actually much harder to govern, much harder to convince people of an idea. Because so many people compete in the marketplace of ideas. It’s harder. And I expect that every single one of you are going to use your devices sometime just to even settle a dinner conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting at dinner with somebody, and somebody says, “Well, what happened in 1945, this” – “Oh, no, no, it was this” – “No, it was that.” And before you know it, someone’s sitting there and they Google the answer and they give you the answer. Years ago, you’d have gone home ignorant. Now you get the answers. And it’s represented, this power is represented in so much more than just Facebook or Instagram. This is one of the most powerful instruments of change ever invented, because you can communicate with anyone, anywhere, any time.

You look at the Arab Spring. It wasn’t some organized effort that began because people had been working in the traditional political way. It was a fruit vendor in Tunisia who was tired of being told no. And when a police officer slapped him around and told him he couldn’t sell his fruit where he wanted to, he went and protested in front of a police station, and the protest he chose, sadly, was to self-immolate himself, burn himself to death. That’s what ignited a revolution that threw out a leader who had been there for 30 years. And that’s what inspired young people communicating with each other, texting to go to Tahrir Square and begin a revolution. And that’s what inspired young people in Syria to go out and ask for jobs and education and health and a future. And instead of listening to them, their leader chose to send his thugs out to beat them up. And after the thugs were finished, the parents were angry, and the parents said, “We’re going to go out and protest against what they did to the kids.” And the parents were met not just with thugs, but with bullets.

That’s how Syria began, my friends. So the question for all of you here at a great institution of learning is: How are you going to learn? How are you going to take this learning and put it to use? You can be heard, yes. But what will you say? What will you do with this power?

In our era, we face now a set of amazing challenges – violent extremism to curbing greenhouse gases to promoting shared prosperity among all people. And I’ll say more about that later this week when I have a chance to speak in yet another capital. But I want to emphasize to you today that education is the key to solving all of these problems. We all know. (Applause.)

Now, yes, obviously, education is a lifelong process. Believe me, I learned this morning, I learned yesterday, I learn every day. But learning and how to learn and how to process information and how to think has to begin at the earliest stages of life. In the United States, we have been pushing hard to expand access to kindergarten and pre-kindergarten so that children start learning as soon as they are able. And those of you here who are studying education or studying children and life will learn that most brain development takes place between three years and seven years. Learning habits and learning capacity takes place at the earliest stages of life.

So globally, one of the Millennium Development Goals has been to ensure that every child – girls and boys – are able to attend primary school. Enormous progress has been made in that direction. That’s good news. But I got to tell you, there are other areas that are much more troublesome, and they’re true in my country as well as yours.

For example, we’ve got to be sure that between the time that children enter school each morning and the time that they leave in the afternoon, they actually learn something. Sitting in a classroom is fine, but it doesn’t automatically mean that you are getting educated.

There is no shortcut to investing in good teachers, training them properly, and paying them what they are worth – and, believe me, a good teacher is as valuable as anybody can be, and should be paid at higher levels everywhere in the world. (Applause.) We also need to find ways to incorporate technology more thoughtfully into the methods and into the learning process. Because just giving a child a tablet or a work-let – a laptop doesn’t get it done. You have to be able to instill the desire to know more, and the belief that success in school will actually translate into success in life. And that doesn’t happen unless you have the opportunities, and the ceilings are broken, and you have the ability to rise to the top.

Another major task that we face today in education 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 is a troubling gap between the skills that schools teach and some of the expertise that the job market demands. Many of the young people in this region actually graduate with a degree, but that degree can leave them ill-suited for the available positions. And this gap is as frustrating to students as it is to the potential employers. There are ways to bridge it, and we need to work at that.

Now, given the numbers of young people in the region, this really ought to be a fixable problem. In the United States, we have developed a very strong community college system that includes hands-on career counseling from the private sector. So we link the private sector to the educational institution and counsel as people go through the institution. So when they get out, they know where they’re going, the job is waiting, and there’s connection. But even that is not enough, which is why President Obama has proposed to our Congress in the United States the idea that every student who applies to a community college should be able to attend that college regardless of their ability to pay the tuition. And we intend to do more to connect our community college system with academic partners in Central Asia, so we can work together at this enterprise.

We’re approaching this issue, believe me, with the urgency that it deserves. And we are just as determined to help you seize these opportunities as we are for ourselves because they are the fundamental opportunities that a world-class education should provide.

That is 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, to conduct research, and to enhance their knowledge and their skills. And over the next five years, we want to see that number keep growing to more than 31,000. That’s our target. We’re also strengthening our partnerships with all five Central Asian nations in order to promote literacy, distance learning, and English language training, including for low-income students and those with disabilities. Now, these partnerships will actually help a lot more students to be able to prepare for admission to colleges and universities in America. And believe me, these programs are having a transformative impact not just on the individuals involved, but on the institutions where they’re going.

One of the great rewards for me of being Secretary of State in the United States is getting to see with my own eyes how many good people there are in so many different places every single day wanting to try to help other people and try to get good things done. And I have actually learned from a few of you.

There is a woman, young woman by the name of Seinep Dyikanbaeva. Is she here? There she is. Stand up and wave. Everybody say hello to her. (Applause.) She is a graduate of AUCA who is using her law degree to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. And she is a proud member – (applause) – she’s a proud member of the Human Rights Advisory Board in Kyrgyzstan and a voice of conscience and of conviction for her country’s vibrant civil society. (Applause.)

I’m also inspired by Gulru Azamova. Is Gulru here? I don’t know if she’s here or not. Gulru is – she studied at the University of North Carolina in 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. Is – I don’t know if she’s here, either. But she studied at Washington University in St. Louis, in Missouri. And she studied on a Fulbright scholarship. She now works for OSCE in Kazakhstan on combatting domestic violence and developing social programs for female prisoners.

Now, of course, there are all kinds of things people can choose to do. One role model isn’t the model for everybody, obviously. But another reason that education is important that informed me and I think informed aware citizens is that it provides a fundamental foundation for democracy. And democracy is in turn the lasting – the foundation for a lasting ability to have prosperity and peace. And make no mistake: Strong and stable democratic systems based on the rule of law are, in our belief, the key to progress for any country in the 21st century.

And here in Kyrgyzstan, you know this because you just completed another round of successful parliamentary elections. And the road ahead is not going to be easy. But we celebrate democracy not because it is easy, and not because it is perfect. We never stand up and suggest to anybody that we have finished our journey – “Oh, look at us, everything is perfect.” It’s not. We see that, unfortunately, in our news, on our television, every day. Whether it’s a problem with something that happened between someone and the police or something that happened with someone who just went crazy, there are problems and challenges.

But I will tell you this: We celebrate democracy because it is the best reflection of individual citizens’ hopes and the best way to be able to go out and act on those hopes. It does a better job, I think, than any other form of government in respecting the rights of individuals. It may take a little longer to get a decision, and sometimes I get frustrated – I can tell you President Obama does – but we believe that solving problems peacefully with individuals’ ability to work these things out through the democratic process is the way you build enduring prosperity and enduring peace and enduring opportunity.

Now, there are few ideas, in my judgment, more powerful – just read history – more infused with a universal aspiration – than democracy. But what I want to emphasize to all of you here this evening is that democracy can never be taken for granted. It is a pursuit that must be renewed and revitalized by every single generation. And it requires every single one of us 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 of our fellow citizens, including particularly men and women of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Let me just tell you something about America. America is one of the – perhaps the only country – I haven’t compared it to every country, but I think it is perhaps the only country in the world that isn’t built and founded on a particular bloodline or a particular tribe or a particular ethnic group. You can go to America, and I hope you will, and somewhere in America you will find someone who defines themselves as an American who comes from everywhere in the world, from every background. That’s who we are. We have defined ourselves over time by our ability to respect individuals, to respect people’s rights, and to allow the people to come together and define their own aspirations, and chase their own dreams.

I was in Philadelphia recently, which is where this notion of America being different began, in a sense. We are an idea – not an ethnic group, not a tribe. We are an idea. And the idea is that all of human beings were created equal, and everybody deserves the right to chase their dream over the course of their lives. Now in Philadelphia, which is where America’s democratic journey began with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, our founding fathers were working late into the night – men who had fought in the revolution. And when they finished their work finally and the constitution was done, Benjamin Franklin – he’s known to be our first diplomat; we have a room in the State Department named after him. It’s where we receive many of our guests from abroad. There’s a portrait of Ben Franklin on the wall. Ben Franklin walked down those steps of what is called Constitution Hall late at night alone, and a woman waiting outside with a group of people who wanted to know what had happened, what had they decided for America – and she shouted a question at him. She said, “Tell us, Dr. Franklin. What do we have, a monarchy or a republic?” And he looked at her and he answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

If you can keep it. The Kyrgyz Republic – there are republics in the world, obviously. But you have to keep it. That sentiment is more real today than at any time that I can think of. It takes work to keep democracy. Democracy doesn’t just happen; it demands real effort, patience, commitment. And the American University of Central Asia has provided thousands of students with a world-class education and the opportunity to go out and do that work. Your job is to make the most of that opportunity. And I can promise you that as you make that effort, the United States of America will be there as a friend every step of the way.

Congratulations to you all, good luck, and God bless. (In Kyrgyz.) Thank you. (Applause.)