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Mason Student Interviews First Lady during Trip to China

April 1, 2014

By Sudha Kamath

First lady Michelle Obama with Mason student Jeffrey Wood in China. Photo courtesy of Discovery Education

First lady Michelle Obama with Mason student Jeffrey Wood in China. Photo courtesy of Discovery Education

Not only did George Mason University Honors College student Jeffrey Wood interview the first lady of the United States during her historic trip to China, but he also was interviewed by Michelle Obama.

Wood, originally from Washington, D.C., is a junior majoring in global affairs and Chinese. He is studying in China after receiving a Boren Scholarship and a Gilman Scholarship.

Wood became part of Discovery Education’s “Of the People: Live from the White House” online broadcast series on March 22, during what was reported as the first solo trip to China by a U.S. first lady. Wood asked Michelle Obama questions submitted by middle and high school students from across the United States. Then Mrs. Obama reciprocated with American students’ questions for Wood, and threw in some of her own queries. The interview, conducted at Peking University in Beijing, was broadcast online to classrooms across the United States on March 25.

Before the interview Mrs. Obama delivered a speech at the university. Wood was seated with the first lady, the president of Peking University and the U.S. ambassador to China. After the speech, Wood participated in an interactive classroom session with Mrs. Obama, the U.S. ambassador and students from Peking and Stanford universities.

Jeffrey Wood in China

Wood in China. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Wood

Then it was time for Wood’s one-on-one with Mrs. Obama. “My nerves really, really shot up to the roof,” Wood says. “At this point, I realized that I would be in a room, just me and her for an extended period of time having a casual conversation. When I entered the room, she immediately gave me a hug and the interview began. … She calmed me down and gave me great advice,” says Wood.

Study abroad was a focus of Mrs. Obama’s week-long trip and a major part of her conversation with Wood. Among the questions from American students posed by Wood to the first lady were: “How did you prepare for your trip?”, “Why is it important to teach Chinese in U.S. schools?” and ”What was the biggest surprise you encountered in China?”

Then Mrs. Obama said she was going to “turn the tables” on Wood, asking him questions from American students. “How was the transition to life in China?” she asked. Turns out, he had to immerse himself in the language, culture and daily routines — from shopping in grocery stores to studying in the classroom — to adjust to his new surroundings. For fun, Wood said he plays tennis, badminton, and ping pong; learns Tai Chi; and watches movies.

Mrs. Obama interjected with her own questions, asking Wood how he rallied the courage to go on his adventure. He said he knew he could grow from the experience to improve his life. The first lady hailed Wood as a role model. “I’m very proud of you,” she added. She touted study abroad initiatives, encouraging students to follow Wood’s lead to “try something new” and “step outside your comfort zone.”

Wood agreed. “It does open your understanding of the world,” he said. “It changed my life forever.”

As a sophomore at Washington, D.C.’s Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School, Wood was selected to participate in a fully funded summer Chinese language program in China, offered by Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA) and funded in part by the U.S. State Department. Discovery Education reports Wood was recommended by the APSA for the interview with Mrs. Obama.

“We are thrilled to offer U.S. students these unique learning opportunities,” said Bill Goodwyn, CEO of Discovery Education. “This Virtual Field Trip supports Discovery Education’s commitment to providing today’s students with memorable digital experiences that let them explore the world from their classroom and build the critical 21st century skills of cultural awareness and global citizenship.”

Now Wood says he’s proud he was chosen to interview the first lady, and to be interviewed by her. “I realized that she really wanted to get to know me as a person. … This made me feel like she really cared.”

His family back home was overwhelmed. “They screamed. They watched it and said I did a great job and that they are proud of the man I have become,” says Wood. “I knew family and friends back home would be surprised that I did such a thing. But I didn’t expect to receive so much of the love, thanks, congrats and heartwarming, encouraging messages. … I read through all of the messages and I almost cried.”

Wood was recruited to George Mason by LaNitra Berger, director of postgraduate fellowships and the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program in the Honors College’s Office of Fellowships. The Boren and Gilman scholarships are managed through her office. “I have known Jeffrey since he was a high school student, and I can say that he is truly exceptional,” says Berger. “Since his first visit to China in 2009, he has worked diligently toward his goal of returning. I am so pleased to see him thriving there.”

Berger says of the students she has worked with in the Office of Fellowships, Wood has applied for and received more awards than anyone. She emphasizes that fellowships can help underrepresented students achieve their study abroad goals. “Mrs. Obama couldn’t have selected a more intellectually curious, thoughtful and dedicated student than Jeffrey for the interview,” adds Berger.

Wood has testified for members of the U.S. Congress about the importance of studying languages. He also appears in a new, award-winning documentary, “Beyond the Wall.” And this summer, Wood will study East Asian affairs at the University of California, Berkeley through the Public Policy in International Affairs fellowship, which also provides $5,000 for graduate school.

Wood eventually plans to attend graduate school and “pursue an international relations career, ideally the Foreign Service, working for USAID, having a career in China.”

He wants to promote and improve Chinese and American relations and increase the number of American students studying in China. He also has a wider goal: “I want to be able to make the world a better place.”