On Friday, July 10th we organized a virtual graduation ceremony for our 2019-20 U.S. grantees on Zoom. Even though this year’s program was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our virtual celebration was a unique chance for everyone to come together and ponder upon the time we shared in Poland.
We kicked off the ceremony with a welcome by Justyna Janiszewska, Executive Director of the Polish-U.S. Fulbright Commission and a slideshow with pictures commemorating some precious moments we shared as a Fulbright community played to the tunes of the graduation march. B. Bix Aliu, Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy and Tomasz Piotrowski from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education delivered their addresses to this year’s graduates via pre-recorded videos. Both of them grounded their remarks in the unprecedented difficulties this year’s grantees faced due to the pandemic while simultaneously emphasizing the grantees’ resilience in powering through the last leg of their fellowship year.
B. Bix Aliu discussed the importance of international exchange programs such as the Fulbright Program that foster global communication, cooperation and the sharing of knowledge in overcoming the difficulties related to the pandemic. “Your role as Fulbright scholars does not end at the end of your fellowships. In truth, it never ends because you now belong to a prestigious community of bridge builders, connectors, people with strong international values, solidarity and understanding,” he said. Tomasz Piotrowski emphasized the role Fulbright alumni play in strengthening the academic and scientific ties between Poland and the U.S. He addressed the U.S. grantees with the following words: “Thank you for the excellent time we spent together, for the fact that Polish students and scientists could meet you and above all for your understanding of these difficult circumstances. I honestly regret that our joint adventure did not last longer but at the same time I hope that the future will create more than one opportunity for you to visit Poland again.”
As is the case with all of our graduations, the ceremony would not be complete without a live concert performed by one of our alumni. This year, we were honored with the opportunity to host Stan Breckenridge who both sent us a pre-recorded concert and attended our virtual event himself. For this occasion, Stan composed a piece titled “It changed my life.”
Because this year we could not meet in person and share food, drinks and chat after the official part, we extended our virtual celebration to include several speeches by this year’s graduates who responded to our call and wanted to share their impressions, memories and difficulties they faced during their Fulbright year. In their own words and moving ways Michael Bamberg, Candace TenBrink, Marek Matyjasik, Jamon Thomas, Elizabeth Rose, Michael LoPiano, Natalia Ochman, Caitlin Mello and Alex Riddell described what they loved about their Fulbright adventure, what they miss the most, how they powered through the beginning of the pandemic when the Fulbright Program had been suspended worldwide, and most importantly how the fellowships have taught them things they didn’t know about themselves and helped them shape their own worldviews. Natalia Ochman added an element of a surprise to the event when she put on a graduation cap decorated for the occasion. As is the customary way in the U.S. to end the graduation ceremony, Natalia performed a symbolic gesture of completion of the Fulbright Program by inviting all this year’s graduates to move their tassels from right to left. Graduates also had a chance to talk to Cecilia Kocinski-Mulder, Regional Program Officer at the Institute of International Education (IIE) about their future possibilities within the Fulbright Program.
This online celebration was a very important moment for all of us. The last time we saw each other face to face was during the mid-year meeting in Toruń at the beginning of February when none of us could have predicted that the pandemic will prevent us from seeing each other in person. Let us end with the words uttered during the event by our Fulbright alumnus Marek Matyjasik that sum up the importance of coming together one last time as a 2019-20 U.S. Fulbright cohort: “I didn’t have the right closure. This closure is happening today.”