On April 21-22, the U.S. Embassy partnered with the non-governmental organization The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) for a two-day conference for Indian and Bhutanese alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs in New Delhi. Entitled “Building Bridges through Exchanges: Strengthening the U.S.-India Partnership,” the conference focused on Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Energy and the Environment; Education; and Gender and Civil Society. This was the first all-India alumni conference in recent memory. Check out a short video of conference highlights here.
Participant-Driven and Mix of Formats
140 alumni, aged 17 to 71, from 50 cities, 25 Indian states, two dozen exchange programs, and Bhutan participated in the conference. An alumni steering committee advised conference organizers on format, and alumni spoke and moderated the discussions. Incorporating a mix of plenaries, breakaway small-group sessions, networking sessions, and field visits, the conference offered participants an opportunity to connect with their peers, share knowledge and expertise, and plan future alumni engagement. Ignited Talks, in which ten alumni shared their personal and professional journeys in under three minutes each, were a highlight. Ms. Mahima Kaul, Head, Public Policy, Twitter India, and International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumna, led an engaging workshop session on leveraging social media; here is a useful primer shared by Twitter. Proceedings from the conference were live-streamed and are available here.
Senior Indian Government Participation
The Chargé d’Affaires opened the conference with remarks and hosted a cultural evening featuring musical groups led by alumni of the OneBeat and Community College Initiative Programs. Two senior Government of India (GoI) officials participated: Secretary (Special Assignments) Amarendra Khatua from the Ministry of External Affairs, concurrently serving as Director-General, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR); and Mr. Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, the GoI’s public policy think-tank. Mr. Khatua stressed the importance of people-to-people engagement beyond the capital city. Mr. Kant spoke on the importance of disruptive innovation in the country’s planning process, state competitiveness, and GoI policy priorities. He also welcomed increased international participation to improve the quality and capacity of the country’s higher education sector.
Earth Day Field Visits
Field visits on the second day explored India’s cultural heritage (visit to an Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation site), civic engagement (tour of the President of India’s residence – Rashtrapati Bhawan), and environmental awareness (walk along the Yamuna River), keeping in mind the theme of Earth Day on April 22. The Yamuna Walk, showcasing the river’s extreme pollution, was led by New Delhi-based IVLP and IVLP Gold Stars alumnus, Mr. Vimlendu Jha, Executive Director and Founder of the non-governmental youth and environment organization, Swechha-We for Change.
Alumni Network: A Way Forward
Alumni concluded the conference with regional break-out sessions and recommendations on how to strengthen alumni engagement and ties between the United States, India, and Bhutan. Participants committed to self-organizing one event in each of their cities over the course of the next year and forming regional steering committees in lieu of formal associations. They expressed interest in a searchable (city, field, and program) database incorporating all exchange alumni and more virtual participation in the Mission’s public diplomacy events. Participants continue to engage each other through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. As a follow-on activity, TERI administered a small grants competition to encourage further collaboration among the participants.