Fulbright Finland Foundation CEO Terhi Mölsä and the Foundation's board chair Piia Björn in a discussion at Suomi Areena in Pori.
Fulbright Finland News Magazine

Seeking Solutions for Global Challenges

25 June 2020 • Text: Louisa Gairn
Fulbright Finland Foundation CEO Terhi Mölsä and Board Chair Piia Björn talk about the Foundation’s brand promise, the launch of the new flagship grant Seeking Solutions for Global Challenges, and the changing outlook for international exchanges and collaboration in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every year, around a hundred Finns and Americans from all walks of life participate in Fulbright Finland Foundation programs, strengthening their academic or professional knowledge, developing their leadership skills and building lifelong networks. As alumni, they continue to share their experience and skills, creating meaningful change. 

“Our alumni contribute to society across all fields and professions. They participate in academic debate and public discussion, create new opportunities, and strive to solve local and global challenges,” says Fulbright Finland Foundation CEO Terhi Mölsä. “You can see our alumni everywhere. For instance, just recently our government appointed an expert group of four top economists to chart Finland’s path to economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. Three of the four economists are our alumni, including the Nobel Prize winner Bengt Holmström.”
In 2018, the Foundation unveiled its brand promise, Together Shaping the Future, articulating its vision and mission, and redesigning its visual branding to symbolize its core values and approach. This process, Terhi says, helped the Foundation Board, staff team and stakeholders in affirming the value of the Foundation’s day-to-day activities and in focusing the Foundation’s ongoing strategic thinking for the future. 

In support of this ambition, the Foundation created a new flagship grant program late last year, Seeking Solutions for Global Challenges. The scope of the grant is highly ambitious, and broadly aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with priority areas including global health, climate change, artificial intelligence, equity, human rights and inclusive societies, among others. While the grants were first launched for U.S. scholars to Finland, the Foundation is now working to expand the program to additional key groups.  

“This grant embodies our vision, mission, and brand promise. We wanted to create a flagship grant that communicates to the field we really are serious about this,” says Piia Björn, Vice Rector of the University of Turku and the current Chair of the Board of the Fulbright Finland Foundation. 

The pandemic dramatically demonstrates how interconnected we all are and underlines the importance of international collaboration and exchanges.

One of the crucial global challenges is the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. “We launched this grant last year with global health as one of its priority areas, before COVID-19 came along. The current pandemic only underlines the importance of this initiative and the importance of our vision. Science is the only solution out of the COVID-19 pandemic. International collaboration is equally imperative both in finding solutions and managing the global crisis. The pandemic dramatically demonstrates how interconnected we all are and underlines the importance of international collaboration and exchanges,” Terhi says. 

From Cultural Diplomacy to Knowledge Diplomacy

The Foundation’s programs fulfil a number of complementary roles, Terhi explains. “Academic or professional exchanges enable the flow of knowledge and ideas and contribute to the internationalization of higher education and research. Simultaneously they are cultural and public diplomacy programs, where grantees are citizen diplomats, sharing their own diverse backgrounds and culture. Many of our programs are also characterized by science diplomacy or knowledge diplomacy, with a distinct focus on helping solve global challenges.”

“All of our programs are also leadership programs. We cannot give grants to everyone who deserves it, because our funding is limited. But we can work with grantees and encourage them to think bigger. We help them to recognise that their individual choices and actions matter and that they can make a difference by sharing with others what they personally gain from the programs, and influence the world around them,” says Piia. “For us, leadership is not about titles. It is an attitude, a personal choice that anyone can make to own the responsibility to create meaningful change,” Terhi adds.

Exchanges Post COVID-19

COVID-19 will reshape higher education worldwide, predicts Terhi, with dramatic impacts on the internationalization of higher education and research, study abroad mobility, exchanges, and international research collaboration. 

“The immediate effects are likely to lead to significant and permanent changes in our field. In analyzing the present situation, we need to rethink international exchanges and internationalization in general, and envision how we can best navigate the future.” 

To help in this process, the Foundation is convening thought leaders from around the world for an online Roundtable discussion under the title “Reimagining Strategy: While COVID-19 Reshapes Higher Education, How Should International Exchanges Navigate the New Normal?” This discussion, in preparation for the Foundation’s Board meeting in June, will take a critical look at the present situation and the short and long-term impacts of the pandemic, how institutions and countries are responding, and finally at envisioning sustainable scenarios for the future. 

The impact is always envisaged as long-term, regardless of the length of the grant.

Among the many issues under serious consideration are mobility and sustainability. “In view of climate change, we cannot support short term travel without planning for a long term impact. The perspective in our programs, however, is always significantly longer than the exchange period itself. We typically start to work with grantees a full year prior to their departure, with network creation, training, and preparation,” says Terhi. “And after their return, grantees engage as alumni for the rest of their lives,” Piia adds. “The impact is always envisaged as long-term, regardless of the length of the grant.” 

“Moving physically from one place to another is obviously not the only way for ideas and knowledge to move,” Terhi points out. “Right now we are looking at how to increase online programming to enhance the in-person experience, and how to optimize the hybrid models that we have been experimenting with. We would like to make them permanent opportunities and to offer them also for those who do not participate in our in-person exchange programs. We want to see this as an opportunity to expand equity and access.” 

“Another important area is ‘internationalization-at-home’, offering access to international experiences without leaving the home campus. This is an area where we have invested more recently with significant help from our grantees and alumni,” says Terhi.

“We also have over six hundred active alumni on the U.S. side, in our Friends of Fulbright Finland Network,” Piia adds. “They continue collaborations with Finnish higher education and research institutions, and help find new partners, both for us and for Finnish researchers and professionals.”

Finnish Minister of Science and Culture, Hanna Kosonen, has described Fulbright Finland Foundation as “a world-renowned, flexible, continually renewing international community of students and researchers that is strongly anchored in the surrounding society.” 

“This really captures the essence,” says Piia. “Legally we are a private foundation registered in Finland, but the essence of the Foundation is all of the individuals and institutions engaged in its network across borders,” Terhi adds. “It is a community owned by everyone — grantees, alumni, universities, partner institutions, donors. It is this network that creates the impact.”

Read the whole Fulbright Finland News magazine 1/2020!