Reflections on the Virtual Annual Conference: A new digital Fulbright world

As the pandemic was declared in March 2020, and countries started closing borders, the enormity of the situation hit us hard, and we slowly started cancelling in-person, scheduled events. We realized not only spring and summer events but all in-person events for the year would need to be cancelled. One by one, from Advocacy Day, to travel programs, chapter events, the Fulbright Prize and ultimately the Annual Conference scheduled to be held in Taiwan came to a slow halt. All headlines read – cancelled due to the pandemic.

Session # 1 – Race, Racism, and Diversity

The work from home protocols were adopted and quickly we became a remote workplace. Online video conferencing, FaceTime calls and all things digital became the new norm. With the return of newly minted Fulbrighters, we were presented with a unique opportunity to fill a gap – the lack of programming, professional development, and providing a new alumni community to many disappointed and disheartened U.S. Grantees.

This led to creating a series of zoom webinars, and the idea for providing a virtual conference to our members. We all struggled to understand what was globally happening, with the health crisis, Black Lives Matter movement galvanized by shocking displays of police brutality, increasing racism and the financial crash of global economies. With this statement in mind–“The Fulbright Association is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  We stand in solidarity with our Black community, and we will continue to advocate for peace, respect and cultural understanding within our local communities and around the world.”–we started planning our virtual conference. At the suggestion of Board vice chair Cynthia Baldwin, we adopted the theme “Where Does the World Go from Here?”, inspired the book written by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pictured from top left clockwise is Caroline Levander, Krishna Guha, Shakira Simley, Maulik Pancholy and John Sargent.

The ongoing crisis determined the direction and content of the opening plenary – Global Crisis: Health, Finance, Racial Equity and Education. Celebrities like Maulik Pancholy (actor and activist) spoke on activism, bullying and growing up gay in America and Shakira Simley (Fulbrighter, food jammer and director of racial equity in the city of san Francisco) spoke on race relations and diversity. Shakira noted that, “Systemic racism is the joint operation of institutions to produce racialized outcomes, even in the absence of racist intent.”

Krishna Guha, Vice Chairman of Evercore ISI, Fulbrighter, and former national board member spoke on the economic and financial experience the world is going through. “This is an unpreceded economic shock as well as a health crisis. Devasting economic shock’s hardest burden has fallen on the most disadvantaged group of people around the world.”

John Sargent, Co-Founder, BroadReach Healthcare, Fulbrighter, and former national board member spoke on healthcare access and equality. His presentation addressed the healthcare perspective tackling COVID 19, stating, “the case for optimism is that COVID 19 while tragic has pushed many health systems to innovate and adopt for the industrial revolution technology.”

Caroline Levander,  Vice President for Global and Digital Strategy at Rice University, (Fulbrighter and National Board of Director member) played a dual role of moderator and speaker on International education, “higher ed as an industry, is seeing a cause for hope and cause for concern, with universities opening and closing, dispersing students and juggling protecting health. The industry anticipates a contraction in the US.”

Session #2 – Environmental/Addressing Current Challenges

Session #3 – The Arts as a Way Forward

The conference sessions and posters were divided into themes: Race, Racism and Diversity; Impact of the Pandemic; Environmental/Addressing Current Challenges ; The Arts as a Way Forward ; Peace, Education, and Social Justice ; COVID-19/Health; Teaching and Education; Education; International Exchange; Activism and Change. Presenters logged in from all over the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Kenya, Columbia, Russia, and Vietnam.

The diversity in topics and presenters was central to the conference and the virtual platform made attendance and presenting innovative, and easier for attendees to engage. Presenters talked about racism, diversity, equal access, and using comics to create a deeper understanding of the pandemic and race. They discussed international educational exchange impacts, to dance, music and film. This conference had all the elements of relevant content for our growing Fulbright community. A session by IIE also guided on, “How alumni can help support student and scholar recruitment.” Click here to see screen shots of presenters – presenter pictures.

The 2020 Cohen dance lecture awardee was Janaki Patrik. Her talk titled, “Improvisation in Kathak,” led the audience through a captivating journey of meditation, and dance rooted in one of the oldest sub-continent (South Asian) dance forms, Kathak.

This year’s conference would not be successful if not for the support of our major donors and sponsors. Each year, donors contribute towards a scholarship fund that allows young professionals and faculty lacking institutional support to attend. National Board member Bruce Fowler and former board chair, Manfred Philipp, supported the 2020 scholarship fund.

Sponsors included institutional members, Rice University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Alabama, Auburn University and University of Arkansas. Other organizations like the National Peace Corps Association, Institute of International Education (IIE) and Strangers Guide sponsored as well.

If you attended the conference, we invite you to fill out the survey. We hope you all plan to keep updated with all our 2021 programming. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary for the Fulbright program, we will be offering a lot of unique digital programming for all our members. We would also love to hear from you all on any suggestions and ideas as well as your exchange stories for our 75th celebration planning. Please email

-Shaz Akram, Deputy Director


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