The following was written by Meridian Professional Exchanges Division Program Associate Julia Koski.
Normally, connecting emerging leaders and Americans in traditional IVLP style is as straightforward as riding a bike, however, in the last few months, program teams have had to find a completely new set of wheels. The tried and true practice of bridging Edward Murrow’s “last three feet” with in-person programs is a paused reality due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and online convening tools have entered as the new medium to connect with and engage our global community.
In this virtual pivot, Meridian mobilized to look for ways to continue being effective practitioners of public diplomacy, predominantly through reinforcing the collaborative mission of the IVLP. Early on, engaging alumni in program reunions and theme-driven salon initiatives was not only critical to maintaining connections formed while in the United States, but also to boost morale by connecting with familiar faces while many remained in isolation.
Program teams quickly identified successful past programs with passionate visitors who had remained active and engaged with their program colleagues. Meridian-administered alumni projects formalized a platform on which alumni could fulfill their desire to reconnect with project stakeholders and share post-program successes.
A ‘Promoting Peace and Tolerance Among Educated Youth’ regional project reunion for Pakistan, organized by the program team of Addie Curley and Lee Norrgard, built on the group’s strong camaraderie by facilitating opportunities to reconnect with IVLP contacts and share their post-program experiences. Since their initial IVLP in 2018, participants shared how they pivoted to providing virtual mental health counseling for college students experiencing COVID-19 induced isolation, found innovative ways to develop scale-up youth programming, and expanded college radio stations to connect with students through this simple, time-tested medium of communication. The reunion was crucial to understanding how professionals in this field are adapting to the present challenges facing young people, many of whom may be at risk of radicalization and extreme ideologies when in less socialized environments.
The alumni reunion program model invites not only the participants to reconvene with each other, but also with the interlocuters, programmers and connections of every kind forged while in the United States. This is particularly critical given the often jam-packed timeline of IVLP programs. Despite getting to see and meet so many individuals, the quantity of connections made in a relatively short period takes time to process. Providing a virtual space in which to follow-up with people that strongly resonated with participants, who they themselves enjoyed but have not continued to engage with, gives a second chance at bolstering the international networks IVLP works to create.
In his ‘NGO Management’ multi-regional project reunion, Vice President Mark Rebstock shared that the energy his group brought to the reunion with programmers and interlocutors was just as, if not more, palpable than during their 2019 IVLP program. The initial program included a half-day workshop with the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC, which deeply impacted how the participants viewed their own leadership style and responsibility in motivating their teams. Not only was reconnecting with these speakers important on a professional level but also building the friendships and sense of community on the reunion call points to how opportunities to reconvene programs only deepen the trust, respect and belief the participants have in each other and their American colleagues.
While we assess the success of projects at the end of the common three-week project timeline, these reunions were critical in understanding how a factor in determining a project’s success can also come from the durability of the connections it creates. People are often hungry to learn and share, and we see this when our participants are here in the United States. However, it is the follow-up to this desire to connect, in tandem with the initial interactions, that reinforces lasting connections.
In this pandemic pause, Meridian recognizes that the most complete version of our work comes from facilitating opportunities for reflection and continued dialogue and see reunion-style programming as being a strong addition to the IVLP experience going forward. Whether sharing innovations or reminiscing like old friends, alumni benefit from reunion-style programming as it has the power to reinforce the IVLP mission of building better leaders with strong international networks, all supported by camaraderie, value-sharing, and a bit of help from the Internet.