Our global study abroad and cultural exchange programs were approaching 50,000 participants for the year. Morale was high and our talented and experienced staff were planning many new ventures.
Sitting on a balcony in Turks & Caicos on vacation, gazing out at Grace Bay beach, I felt content knowing that we were on the verge of something great. Then the world changed. Flights began to stop, and the program cancellations began in earnest. A chain reaction duplicated around the globe.
My emotions became overwhelming—first the grief for the sick and dying and then the fear of the unknown. What will become of the field of international education and cultural exchange?
As of today, with no end in sight and the suffering getting worse, here is what I see in our future:
We will survive. We have to. Our mission is too important. If there is one thing the virus has shown us, it is the importance of international cooperation.
We will become smaller in every respect. Participants, staff, locations.
We will go to fewer conferences with less staff in tow. Some will be held virtually but will be less effective as conferences are about networking and social activities. Always have been.
Will our customer support suffer with fewer staff? When will we begin to grow again?
We will expand usage of Zoom and other communications platforms. Acceptable alternatives but they will plateau when our offices reopen.
There are many options we will have to consider:
Will we, as a field, continue to financially support diversity organisations and send students to non-traditional destinations? Will we continue to fully support membership-based organisations? Will our customer support suffer with fewer staff? When will we begin to grow again?
In time we will rebuild. As my friend Alan Goodman, President of IIE and an acute student of history, told me “exchanges always come back strong after pandemics.” This is uplifting and true.
I have been in this field for 45 years, 35 years at AIFS. I can only hope we all recover quickly and continue to bring the world together through international education and cultural exchange. There is no goal more noble – or necessary during these times.
As Bruce Springsteen said, “No Retreat, No Surrender”
So, see you out there at some point. Stay safe.
William L (Bill) Gertz is the Chairman and CEO of AIFS, a leading global education and cultural exchange organization founded in 1964.
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