Exchange Matters / June 6, 2022

San Diego’s Return to In-Person Programming

A group of 18 professionals, representing IVLP participants and representatives from SANDAG are pictured outside in front of a fountain and science center.

IVLP participants meet with SANDAG representatives Susan Fleedman and Courtney Pesce as part of the project “U.S. Energy Policy,” organized with FHI360. Photo provided by San Diego Diplomacy Council.

By Lulu Bonning, Program Officer, San Diego Diplomacy Council

The introduction of virtual International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) delegations has been a pleasant addition to the well-oiled machine that is IVLP. Here at the San Diego Diplomacy Council, we are grateful to the pandemic for helping us reimagine IVLP programming in the virtual environment – if for very little else. Virtual IVLP enabled San Diego to connect with visitors unable to travel to the United States in-person, host meetings with resources often overlooked in favor of conveniently located alternatives, and be invited into participant’s homes and workplaces for tours and cultural activities. Needless to say, there’s nothing like in-person visitors, and we have been so excited to welcome the return of international delegations to San Diego in May.

What we expected with the return to in-person projects: the smiles, the new friends, the meaningful connections, the reinvigorated love of and appreciation for citizen diplomacy.

What we didn’t expect: the COVID hurdles, the slow process of relearning something we used to know so well, and the sheer exhaustion of spending an entire day in a room full of people, away from the respite of screen muting and pajama attire.

When dealing with the challenges of returning to in-person, we have repeatedly been reminded of the value in our community. We are part of such a rich Network at Global Ties U.S., and the stories and experiences of other programmers around the country are invaluable. If you are facing an issue, reach out to the Network – I can guarantee that you’re not alone. We are also grateful for the decades of community-building that has been established between our organization and the city of San Diego; there are so many organizations and individuals here that are waiting with open arms to welcome international visitors. 

We have hosted three IVLP delegations in San Diego throughout May, and each has posed its own challenges. We’ve experienced issues securing COVID tests for groups. We’ve had day-of cancellations from meeting resources who are experiencing office-wide COVID outbreaks. More than one highly accomplished speaker has balked at the thought of having to speak in front of a room full of people, rather than a screen full of boxes.

For each time my colleagues and I question why we go to such great lengths to put on great experiences for IVLP visitors, there are hundreds of reminders why the in-person factor makes it all worthwhile. As an example, in late May, I was standing in Balboa Park attending an IVLP session with the “U.S. Energy Policy – Security, Independence, and Innovation” delegation and SANDAG, a forum of decision-makers for the San Diego region. Participants were so engaged by the details of California’s ambitious electric vehicle goals, and the session was only improved by the venue’s ambiance: the monumental Bea Evenson Fountain behind us, and fleet of electric charging stations in the distance. The same delegation also spent a day in Imperial Valley, a few hours east of San Diego. In the morning, they explored Tenaska’s impressive solar facility and learned about Tenaska’s role supporting the evolving renewable energy movement in California. The group’s afternoon was spent touring Controlled Thermal Resources’ lithium ion extraction facility to better understand how they are delivering sustainable power and advancing renewable energy development. All the professional meeting hosts were vying for a lunch invitation with the visitors, to prolong their time with the group. Clearly, we aren’t the only ones welcoming the return to in-person programs!

Thus far in my return to in-person journey, the only thing I am sure of is to expect the unexpected. As life settles into a new status quo, I’m inclined to question everything. And then question it again. If we have always hosted meetings in board rooms, why not invite resources to meet at the beach instead? If we always send groups to downtown hotels, isn’t this the perfect opportunity to explore other rich and diverse regions of our cities? 

All that is to say; everyone involved in IVLP is on a steep learning curve. I encourage you to have grace for yourselves, have grace for each other, and most importantly, remember that we are doing incredibly meaningful work. Participants won’t remember the 15 times you reminded them to wear a mask. What they will remember is the once-in-a-lifetime experience you helped to create.