We talked to Maria Balinska, Executive Director at US-UK Fulbright Commission on how its programs promotes peace & cultural understanding through educational exchange and this is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Maria Balinska: Thanks so much for asking. We have been very fortunate. My teenager has continued to go to school in person, and at home, we’re healthy and busy with work.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined the US-UK Fulbright Commission.
Maria Balinska: I am an American who came to Britain and worked as a journalist at BBC Radio for many years, then as a Brit returned to the US on a fellowship and stayed there for a decade, first launching my own “local global mashup” news start-up and then leading the newsroom at The Conversation US, a nonprofit daily where the content is authored by academics and edited by journalists for the general public (check it out: it’s a great source of reliable information). In 2019 I made a move into higher education full-time by coming back to the UK to take up the very exciting position of executive director at the US-UK Fulbright Commission, the only international education exchange program that sends people both ways across the Atlantic.
How does US-UK Fulbright Commission innovate?
Maria Balinska: Born at the end of World War Two, with a vision of furthering international understanding through educational exchange, the global Fulbright program was ground-breaking from the get-go. Around the world, Fulbright alumni have been at the forefront of scientific discovery and cultural and social innovation. Here in London, the US-UK Fulbright Commission may be over 70 years old now, but we are constantly innovating to further our mission of advancing knowledge, promoting civic engagement, and developing compassionate leaders. The digital Fulbrighter platform, for example, that was launched by my predecessor on behalf of the worldwide Fulbright community, enables Fulbright awardees and alumni to build connections and initiate collaboration.
Just a few months ago, we migrated College Day, the largest US college and university fair in Europe, from a West London hotel to a virtual conference platform, hosting over 170 colleges and universities and over 2000 students and their families.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Maria Balinska: COVID-19 has put international travel on pause, and therefore it interrupted some of our exchange programs at the start of 2020. But many went ahead last autumn, and we are busier than ever. There’s an enormous amount of interest in international education exchange, and the fact we cannot do certain events in-person has meant we’ve been convening webinars and orientations and other meetings online – and working with our government and university partners to make sure that our awardees can have the best experience possible, whether they have traveled abroad or are participating in their program from home. And the Commission team has been doing all this on their laptops at home since March. It’s not been easy, but the team has been amazing.
Looking forward, we’re thinking about the future of research collaboration and global learning in a world where in-person travel will be more difficult and less frequent (whether due to pandemics or climate change) and how we can continue to innovate our awards and our programming to remain relevant and impactful far into the 21st century.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Maria Balinska: Key lessons learned: have a clear sense of purpose, communicate frequently and regularly, and value your team!
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Maria Balinska: My personal coping mechanisms: swimming (when possible!), walking the dog, playing backgammon with the family, and reading or watching fiction.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Maria Balinska: There are a handful of fellowship programs that bring Americans to the UK (including Rhodes and Marshall) and that take Brits to the US, including Kennedy and Rotary). We’re the only organization to support people going both ways – and we do that for 18-year-olds to professor emeriti. Bottom line, we see these other groups more as allies than competitors – in our view, the importance of international exchange programs couldn’t be more important than it is now.
Your final thoughts?
Maria Balinska: The immense challenges we face today – climate change, racial justice, pandemics – are all global challenges. The only way we are going to tackle them is for people from around the world and from a diversity of experiences and perspectives to share learning and collaborate. International education exchange helps make this happen. That’s why we at the US-UK Fulbright Commission believe so strongly in what we do – and why we are positive about the future.