By Katherine Brown, Ph.D., President & CEO, Global Ties U.S.
Last March, as COVID-19 began to transform our lives, Global Ties U.S. never imagined the focus of our training work for 2020 and beyond would be launching a Network-wide Virtual Exchange Academy. The foundation of our work has always been in-person exchange programs. Yet, as you know, none of us let this health crisis prevent our work. While your organizations were quickly pivoting to virtual formats to keep your communities engaged with the world, we at Global Ties U.S. started thinking about how we could support you in ensuring that the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) went virtual.
Through initial conversations with our partners at the Office of International Visitors (OIV), it was clear by April 2020 that we had to design a special program to support every Community-Based Member in building the organizational capacity and skillsets for virtual exchange programs. Critical to this was the additional funding provided by OIV. With some quick thinking and a partnership with Soliya, a leader in virtual exchange training, the Virtual Exchange Academy (VEA) was designed. I’m thrilled that a year later, more than 90 percent of our Community-Based Members (CBMs) took part in this training. As I’m confident we will see, building your skills in virtual exchange programming will not just benefit the continuity of the IVLP and other exchange programs through the end of the pandemic, but it will enhance them for the long-term.
Just by numbers, the progress is impressive: More than 90 percent of CBMs took part in 26 hours of training. This included primer and foundational courses, in addition to advanced courses and a final simulation activity. Through the VEA training, participants saw that virtual facilitation takes a new skillset rather than leading or moderating a meeting. It takes serious involvement and technical know-how to engage diverse participants in meaningful dialogue.
As we rethink exchange programs and their hybrid future, successfully facilitating virtual programs will be essential. When travel resumes, the time we spend together virtually will afford us more quality time when we meet in real life. Relationships that start via Zoom will take on new and deeper meaning when we come back together in-person.
Most of all, what impressed me the most was how members of this Network took this opportunity to further build community. As one CBM leader put it after finishing the advanced course during the Virtual Exchange Academy, “I could see how the skills I gained during the training can help build a safe space, which leads to trust and in turn leads to community building. They will benefit me in my current work with IVLP, and also in other forums where I work — city council, synagogue, politics.”
The VEA took an extraordinary amount of work to put together and I want to thank our partners at OIV and Soliya, and the Global Ties U.S. staff and fellows who put their heart into the project: Franzi Rook, Brittany Rock, Ivan Escamilla, Amodini Khade, and Selena Jones. In addition to the communications team who made sure that you have learned about pivoting in this virtual world through the Network Innovation Spotlight: Stephanie Sutton, Erica McNamara, and Christian Caudill. Thank you to all of you who embraced this opportunity and also saw the opportunity to collaborate and build community with one another. We’ll continue to find new ways to help you build your skills, especially as we start thinking about our hybrid programming future.