Albright Institute Wintersession Examines How to Strengthen Global Institutions in a Time of Turmoil

collage of zoom view of albright fellows
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This January, Wellesley College’s Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs hosted its 12th annual Wintersession. The three-week intensive program, established in 2010, consists of lectures, conversations, and panels featuring some of the world’s most influential thinkers on diplomacy and geopolitics. Past Wintersession guests have included Susan Rice, the current director of President Biden’s Domestic Policy Council; Samantha Power, who is serving in the Biden administration as director of USAID; and Henry M. Paulson Jr., former U.S. secretary of the treasury.

The institute’s mission is to educate the next generation of women leaders, and the Wintersession experience offers Wellesley students a chance to use their liberal arts education to grapple with problems in the international arena. Albright Institute fellows work in multidisciplinary groups to research urgent issues facing the world today. This year’s Wintersession focused on strengthening global institutions.

“We are living through a moment when the international rules-based system, and the key multilateral institutions that support it, are increasingly under strain,” said President Paula Johnson, in her introduction to the Wintersession’s annual public dialogue.

“At the same time, the most pressing issues we currently face—the ongoing pandemic, democratic backsliding, climate change, and racial and gender-based oppression—are global issues. They are common to all of humanity, and can only be lastingly reduced by global cooperative action. We must come together as global citizens to confront these issues, and we must leverage global institutions to do so.”

The 40 Albright Institute fellows this year hailed from 10 countries, represented 23 majors, and included 32 juniors, seven seniors, and one Davis Scholar. Fellows’ projects reflected the focus on rebuilding global institutions, examining how key players might come together to combat offshore piracy in the Horn of Africa; manage the Northwest Passage as it is opened by climate change; increase protection for small island climate refugees as seas rise; expand the permanent members on the UN Security Council; and develop a malaria vaccine, among other issues. During the final week, the fellows shared their projects with Susana Malcorra, foreign minister of Argentina from 2015 to 2017 and this year’s distinguished visiting professor at the institute, who explored the issues with them further.

Though this year’s Wintersession took place entirely online for the first time, it remained an intimate and immersive experience due to the efforts of Stacie Goddard, the institute’s Paula Phillips Bernstein Faculty Director; Rebecca Gordan, the institute’s program director; and the institute staff, who worked throughout the fall to tailor the programming to meet the moment.

“We made a promise to fellows in July that this year’s program would incorporate the same focus on community that has always been a centerpiece of the fellowship,” said Gordan.

In past years, the Wintersession’s in-person gatherings often took center stage, but this year, as the program went remote, the institute sought novel ways to emphasize and facilitate a culture of connection among the 2021 fellows. While fellows heard from the institute’s distinguished guests about how to rebuild global institutions, they also practiced diplomacy and bridge-building on a smaller scale, in both their project groups and their cohort as a whole, focusing on the importance of empathy and on the key leadership skill of connecting across differences.

eFormer institute fellows serving as mentors to the 2021 group were essential to this shift. 2020 fellows Kayla Nakeeb ’21, an art history and English double major, and Kelly Hsu ’21, a neuroscience major, held multiple digital sessions both before and during the Wintersession to give 2021 fellows chances to get to know one another. To help foster connection, they asked fellows to create individual photo journals of themselves to share with each other and hosted game nights and other activities.

“Some of the most memorable aspects of this experience were outside of the scheduled programming,” said Isabela Valencia ’21, an environmental studies major and economics minor who is featured in the Albright Gratitude Project video the fellows created to celebrate their experience and thank those who helped shape it. “They ranged from playing silly ice-breaker games, to discussing Harry Potter houses, and even learning to embroider together.”

They also helped organize an online “mingle” with fellows from cohorts spanning 2010 to 2021—an informal opportunity for former fellows to reconnect with the institute and for current ones to strengthen bonds with recent alumnae now making a difference in the world.

“This year’s remote experience allowed us to offer new opportunities to our fellows, and to bring in fellows from past years in novel ways,” said Gordan. “[They] got to meet and share experiences, and build professional and intellectual connections.”

As part of this year’s online ceremony at the end of the session, fellows could include their family and friends in ways past cohorts did not. And in a new twist on the annual tradition of the pinning ceremony, many of the fellows involved family or friends at home in the process.

“Everyone knows how much it would have meant to each fellow to have been able to experience this fellowship in person,” said Lorna Li ’22, a biological sciences major and Asian American studies minor and a 2021 fellow. “While that is still true, the closing and pinning ceremony that invited family and friends from all over the world to the audience was a first for an institution that many thought had seen it all. The special gift of having my dad video record me saying the introduction for the closing gratitude project was one that I know means just as much to me as it does to him. The pin we received from the institute may be of the entire world, but I will always remember the first time putting it on was in a place I consider home.”