COVID-19—This is a very challenging situation for everybody in the community and beyond. All of you will have a personal COVID-19 story to tell. When our US and Austrian program participants prepared for their time abroad, they did not expect that they would have to deal with a global pandemic. They were preparing for an outstanding academic and cultural experience. They were excited to be given a chance to participate in this flagship exchange program, which has changed the lives of so many participants. They were looking forward to learning, teaching, and researching in another country. They made their plans, booked their tickets, packed their luggage. Off they went to a new life. They settled in their host country, either the US or Austria, and immersed themselves in a new culture. Then COVID-19 changed everything (US government, Austrian government). We reached a level-3 health advisory on March 11, 2020, and a global level-4 health advisory on March 19, 2020. This resulted in the global suspension of the US Fulbright Program by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Many US program participants returned to their home countries as alums. Austrian program participants in the US also organized their return home. With flights canceled and borders closed, this was indeed a very stressful situation for our students, teaching assistants, and scholars. I also understand that such a pandemic and the related change of plans can lead to a plethora of emotions, including disappointment. Personally, I feel with all of those whose plans were impacted by COVID-19; I want to tell you that I too imagined a very different program year for our participants. I also want to acknowledge the terrible impact COVID-19 has on the health and wellbeing of so many Austrian and American citizens all over the world. These are exceptional circumstances that teach us empathy. They will also teach us how important international cooperation and knowledge transfer is for safety and health in such an interconnected world.
We, the Fulbright Austria team, have done everything in our power to help our program participants and alums in these challenging times. We are also grateful for the support we received from all our institutional partners: the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research (BMBWF); the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; the US embassy in Austria, and the Institute of International Education. In times like these, it becomes clear that we have reliable partners on both sides of the Atlantic. Only together can we manage such a crisis. I would like to express my thanks to the entire Fulbright Austria team. They invested their full energy to support our program participants and alums. Their dedication to the mission of the program and the people they are supporting is outstanding. I am proud to be a part of this team.
I am also proud of how “the class of 2020” has navigated the exceptional circumstances and the challenges involved. As Epictetus once said, “Some things are in our control and others not.” The global situation was not in their control, but how they have responded to the challenges of COVID-19 was in their control. The decision to return home or stay abroad certainly has not been an easy one for them. I consider all of them heroes in this exceptional Fulbright journey. Like with every hero, there is a gift that they gained by overcoming all these challenges. They have experienced both cultures in this COVID-19 crisis with empathy and cultural understanding; now they can bring the best from both sides of the Atlantic together and be the catalyst for change in their environment.
I want to close this editorial with words of hope: "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end." Just as with many wise words, there are several people to whom these words have been attributed. At this point, however, it is not a question of the origin of these words, but of actions. Now in this COVID-19 pandemic, it is our responsibility to make these words reality. #supporteinander, and everything will be okay in the end.
Hermann Agis, PhD