From the inception of the Fulbright scholarships in 1946, those of us who were privileged to be abroad in the first half of 2020 had the most unique of all experiences. We are the only Fulbright cohort to have lived through a global pandemic. COVID-19 cut our projects short and caused us anguish, but it also bought us closer to our fellow Fulbrighters, those who we were visiting and provided new opportunities. This is a moment in time that washed away society’s veneer and laid stark prejudice, challenges and love.
There is a personal moment that stands out for me. During my time at Harvard University, students were told to leave campus, doors started to shut on campus and border restrictions started to bite. As I walked across campus I heard music and saw that students were gathering spontaneously with their instruments in Harvard Yard. They would probably not have a Commencement in 2020, many of the students would not be back before graduation and the emotions were extreme. Everyone knew the world had changed, and in those days we did not know if it would bounce back or if the predictions of millions of deaths would come true. In this moment, a few students started playing music on the dais before the steps of Memorial Church, facing Widener Library. Then on that dais and on those steps, numbers grew as students sprinted out of dorms and across lawns to join in the music. A conductor appeared and music bounced off the sandstone walls. Commencements had occurred, but for 9 occasions, each year since 1642. 2020 was likely to be the tenth year in 378 years not to hold a Commencement.
As the music filled Harvard Square, academics and others came out of their offices to stand in solidarity with the growing throng. For everyone it was a poignant moment. I knew I was soon to shut my office door at Harvard Law School, 305 Austin Hall, earlier than I hoped and leave the United States. At that moment, everyone in that square had achieved something: we had made Harvard University via various paths but had a common experience in our life journeys at this moment in time. We had gained something special by being there, but also were losing something as a new chapter started for us, our communities and indeed the world.
Paul David Harpur – Fulbright to Massachusetts, USA 2020