Collaborating in Crisis: Lessons from a Transatlantic Test

The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) is a fellowship funded by the German Bundestag and U.S. Department of State that annually provides 75 American and 75 German young professionals between the ages of 18½–24 the opportunity to spend one year in each other’s countries, studying, interning, and living with hosts on a cultural immersion program. Separate CBYX programs not administered by Cultural Vistas include similar programming for high school and vocational students.

CBYX has weathered many challenges in its 37 years, but nothing like the one on March 12, 2020. Ironically, the same day Cultural Vistas held an organization-wide remote work trial, the U.S. State Department and German Parliament made the difficult decision to curtail the 2019-20 CBYX program due to the emerging pandemic. Each of our 150 participants on both sides of the Atlantic had to return home immediately. As the global pandemic worsened, the 2020-21 CBYX program would pivot to a fully virtual format.

Cultural Vistas Senior Director Dr. Daniel Villanueva and member of the CBYX for Young Professionals College Coordinators Council and merit scholarships advisor, Dr. Lori A. Felton (American University, Washington DC), here take stock and share key lessons learned a year on.

Integrity in Partnerships

As stated above, Cultural Vistas administers the CBYX for Young Professionals program for the U.S. State Department and in that role, regularly interacts with exchange counterparts in Germany, host college campus coordinators and scholarship advisors, 75 German and 75 American young professionals annually, host families, colleges, and firms, and the CBYX Alumni Association. Strong, resilient relationships allowed for flexibility as the situation unfolded and ensured that rapidly-evolving policies were understood and supported by all. Repatriation of both German and American CBYX Fellows was completed within 5 days with long hours, dedicated staff, and unified stakeholder messaging.

Strong relationships with the State Department CBYX program team were also key in the days and weeks beyond repatriation, and our staff benefited greatly from their guidance and expertise in this extraordinary situation. We and our counterparts at the State Department quickly took action to bring about a smooth early end to the program year. State Department and CBYX Alumni Association-organized re-entry programming helped to ease participants’ transition. Cultural Vistas worked closely with the CBYX Alumni Association, which also volunteered its assistance in transition seminars, resume workshops, and individual connections, welcoming CBYX participants whose alumni status began five months earlier than expected.

Agile, Transparent Structures

Cultural Vistas’ agile workplace helped CBYX staff and our partners address developing situations rapidly. Airline bookings were coordinated by one staff member, and five staff collaborated remotely on all necessary tasks, as our physical office was officially closed at the time. German and American colleagues took seamless action across transatlantic time zones as conditions warranted. Strategic communications were also essential during this rapidly-evolving situation, and our staff coordinated with the State Department to provide appropriate and timely responses to stakeholders.

Once the 2019-20 participants returned home safely and were integrated into follow-on activities as above, attention turned to the 2020-21 program. Cultural Vistas’ commitment to an agile structure allowed us to switch rapidly from in-person to online activities once it was decided in April to move CBYX programming online for 2020, and then later on for the entire program year.  CBYX virtual activities have since included: German language classes from our Goethe Institute partners, diplomatic simulations and other State Department programming that has brought together both German and American participants, an online leadership course facilitated by American Councils, and several opportunities for German-American virtual participant meetups on a variety of topics. These will continue through the regular end of the program year in June 2021.

Changing Recruitment and Advising Practices

For CBYX College Coordinators involved in recruitment and advising applicants and finalists, many lessons were learned as well, and we highlight here one of Cultural Vistas’ most active collaborators during this pandemic year, the Assistant Director of the Office of Merit Awards at American University (AU). As at many two- and four-year institutions, offices such as these offer support to college students and alumni applying to nationally competitive awards including CBYX. AU advances approximately two CBYX applicants for consideration annually in addition to having hosted German Fellows in the past.

As with CBYX for Young Professionals finalists across the country, American University participants in State Department fellowships in 2019-20 faced unexpected obstacles: hesitancy to return because of potentially infecting elderly relatives at home, returning to an undesirable geographic location, or personal conflicts at home. Most did not have health insurance in the United States, so traveling posed an exponentially greater health risk. Finally, some felt that the countries where they were posted had addressed COVID better and felt safer remaining in place. Valuable advice which these participants shared includes the following:

As recruitment for fellowships such as CBYX is heavily dependent upon personal testimonials, American University encouraged 2020 Fellows to share their experiences with applicants, particularly regarding resilience in preparation for experiences overseas.

Dynamic, Ongoing Contact

American University had two CBYX applicants named as 2020-21 alternates just prior to CBYX curtailment last March. Both were initially excited about potentially becoming Fellows. Cultural Vistas notified finalists much later than usual due to the events outlined above, and AU’s finalists and alternates began to develop doubts about selection and whether next year’s program would even take place. Candidates both at AU and elsewhere made other tentative plans. In AU’s case, one alternate chose the Peace Corps and another graduate study.

In mid-May 2020, some CBYX for Young Professionals alternates were notified they were selected as Fellows, and the amended timeline worked well for many, including one candidate AU was advising. While some Fellows missed out on a longer language immersion and overall stay in Germany, the amended program provided an opportunity for professional development and engagement with the language, providing as much continuity as possible, given the circumstances. The American University Merit Scholarship Advisor/College Coordinator works with applicants to CBYX and similar scholarships such as Fulbright, Boren, and more, and flexibility and maturity are prerequisites for all such programs. AU’s two CBYX candidates in 2020-21 demonstrated these qualities throughout the spring, are exemplary representatives of the cohort, and have since represented the university well in the virtual program.


For both CBYX staff and university merit scholarship advisors, responding to the pandemic required constant demonstration of the values of integrity, agility, transparency, and trust. The resilience of our networks, including program alumni as well as student-applicants, also provided opportunities for innovation in this unique challenge to international exchange programming. The AU Office of Merit Awards and other scholarship advisors and college coordinators were made even more aware of the value of fostering applicant agility and preparation. These qualities are what CBYX and similar fellowships prize, and the recent crisis exposed how critical they are in advising. As exchange program management and advising practices continue to evolve due to the pandemic, both CBYX and our stakeholders can mark March 2021 with a renewed sense of commitment to these core values as part of the emerging “new normal.”

About the Authors

Dr. Lori A. Felton

Assistant Director, Office of Merit Awards American University
CBYX College Coordinator

Dr. Lori A. Felton joined the Office of Merit Awards as Assistant Director in 2017. She primarily advises students who are applying for Fulbright Study Grants, Fulbright Teaching Assistantships, and Boren Awards, as well as the Killam Fellowship, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, the Rangel Program and the Payne International Development Fellowship. Lori earned her advanced degrees in art history from Bryn Mawr College. She received her undergraduate degree in liberal studies from American University in 2005, graduating magna cum laude with university honors and departmental honors in art history. The recipient of national and international awards, her distinctions include a Fulbright study grant, an Austrian-American Educational Commission English teaching assistantship, a DAAD scholarship, the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, and an American University Phi Theta Kappa scholarship. Before returning to American University, she worked as an independent art historian in the United States and Austria.

Dr. Daniel C. Villanueva

Senior Director, Congress-Bundestag for Young Professionals and University Partnerships, Cultural Vistas

Daniel joined Cultural Vistas after two decades in Nevada higher education as German professor, Honors administrator, and grants coordinator at UNLV, then UNR and the Nevada Board of Regents. He has mentored countless “citizen-diplomats” as CBYX college coordinator and scholarships advisor, receiving a German-American Friendship Award for this and related transatlantic activities over the years.

Daniel earned a B.A. in German and International Relations from American University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in German Studies from Duke University. He is author and translator of several scholarly works in his research fields of language pedagogy and German Studies.