Exchange Matters / January 22, 2021

Rebuild Better

By Mark Ritchie, President, Global Minnesota

In 1951, a small group of civic-minded leaders agreed that something should be done to make sure that the Cold War-driven surge of international students coming to Minnesota’s colleges and universities would be warmly welcomed and supported throughout their stay. This devotion to organized kindness was captured in their first founding motto: “They’ve arrived as strangers; may they depart as friends.”

Today, as Global Minnesota turns 70, we remain passionate about the importance of greeting visitors– both those who come to our high schools and colleges, and those who come for professional exchange programs – whether on programs sponsored by governments, religious institutions, youth and service clubs, sports teams, business associations, cultural groups, travel and tourism companies, or other civic institutions.

Over these seven decades we’ve grown and adapted to the changes happening around the world, and in our own backyard. Since the ending of the Cold War, we’ve been blessed with new Minnesotans moving here from every continent. But these decades of expansion and diversification of programs came to a sudden stop in March of last year. Like nearly everyone else in the world, COVID-19 ended normal life.

The pandemic disrupted education worldwide and temporarily closed the door on in-person exchanges. It forced those of us passionate about the importance of these people-to-people relationship-building activities to bring forth creative new approaches—some of which will forever transform international education and exchanges.

The pandemic-induced transformations taking place in education—from pre-school to post-graduate and beyond—are a major concern worldwide, and the long-term impact on international education is still unknown. We normally carry out Global Minnesota’s mission “advancing international understanding and engagement” in our daily work connecting Minnesotans to the world and the world to Minnesota. Though COVID-19 has made creating in-person relationships more complicated, it has opened up some big opportunities for international education and exchange to reach larger and more diverse audiences.

For example, as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) went digital, we connected a virtual delegation of key health leaders from a dozen Pacific Island nations with the top people at the Mayo Clinic leading their COVID-19 response –an exchange that led to lives being saved and relationships being forged for a lifetime. While this connection was relatively easy to arrange via Zoom, it could never have happened “in-person” during the pandemic.

We are further taking advantage of this all-digital moment by organizing large-scale virtual events on major UN-recognized Days of Observance, including International Day of Education on January 25, 2021. In partnership with UNESCO, the lead UN agency for this day, Global Minnesota will host a virtual worldwide symposium bringing together speakers, activists, and advocates who are responding to the pandemic-related education crisis and creating the future of learning. The day’s theme, “Recovering and Revitalizing Education for the COVID-19 Generation,” points to the desire of people everywhere to turn the pandemic into a catalyst and rebuild better.

Global Minnesota is proud of both our long-term affiliation with the U.S. Department of State’s official visitor programs and the active role that Minnesotans have played in nurturing and sustaining international education programs and exchanges. Global Minnesota hosts around 400 official visitors each year from every corner of the planet. We’ve used the relationships built over our seven decades to lay the groundwork for rebuilding our in-person programs when it is safe again—and for advancing other key elements of public diplomacy, like Minnesota’s bid to host the 2027 World Expo, with a focus on health and wellness.

Global Ties U.S. keeps us connected to our colleagues around the United States and around the world, and it keeps us tied to our roots that run deep in our nation’s history. There is no question that 2020 was a hard year and 2021 will have its own challenges. But hopefully, when we can gather in-person once again, we will celebrate the power of the rebirth of international relationships – and make the bold assertion that we did, in fact, “Rebuild Better.”