Navigating COVID-19: How AIF Alumni Are Adapting to the Crisis (Part I)

In March 2020, COVID-19 disrupted daily life and impacted millions of people across the world. This once in a century pandemic also necessitated the pause of the in-person AIF Clinton Fellowship program, bringing most of the 19 Fellows home three months prior to completing their full service. However, despite these rapid changes, the Fellows helped lead three workshops to benefit AIF’s COVID-19 relief efforts that discussed how AIF Alumni are adapting to the crisis.

A screenshot from the first of the "Navigating COVID-19" series.
2019-20 Fellow Jessie Standifer leads a discussion with three Alumni from the Fellowship Program: Ben Lenzner, Maitreyi Nandhakumar, and Nikhil Mahen.

The first of these three talks brought together three AIF Clinton Fellowship Program Alumni—Ben Lenzner, Class of ‘05-’06; Maitreyi Nandhakumar, Class of ‘17-’18; and Nikhil Mahen, Class of ‘13-’14—to share their perspectives on the past few months in a discussion led by current Fellow Jessie Standifer.

The discussion began by looking at digital storytelling in the context of limited archives and unintended consequences. Ben, an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and writer, emphasized the importance of taking advantage of the time in quarantine to use the tools we have to harness our lives, even in the face of limitations. Focusing on his work documenting his family while spending time at home in quarantine, his work showcasing happenstance moments where inspiration and opportunity arise from places you wouldn’t expect, and his work portraying the unintended consequences that certain projects have, Ben discussed that even when we feel like we are stuck, we all have the ability to go forward and craft our own narratives.

The second presentation was given by Maitreyi, who led a conversation on re-imagining education in the aftermath of COVID-19. During her time as a Fellow, Maitreyi spent a lot of time working with people and children from marginalized communities in order to build life skills and after-school programs. But, given the chaos of the current situation, Maitreyi emphasized that programs must be restructured and adapted. Facing challenges like people being stranded without work, reverse migration, dropping out of school, and even staff burnout, education administrators will need to create new methods of assessment, contextualize content, crowd-source high quality educational materials, create blended learning programs, and find a seamless way to integrate technology into the learning process.

The third and final presentation was given by Nikhil, who discussed a framework to test and pivot start-up solutions, especially given the current environment businesses are operating in. Nikhil explained that pivots are substantial changes based on customer feedback that violates a company’s initial hypothesis, and usually result from three main situations: the market changes (COVID-19 falls into this), the product fails, or feedback from testers leads to a change. When faced with one of these scenarios, Nikhil states that the first step is to organize the assumptions that the company has initially to determine which need to be tested to determine if they are true. Ultimately, to succeed, these tests are one of the most important things a business can do as the trials allow customers to tell you whether your product is good or not. An emphasis on testing, failing faster to succeed sooner, identifying core assumptions, and making the pivot early are the key points to running a successful startup in the COVID-19 era.

The talk concluded with a joint Q&A session, where the Alumni took questions such as: “What narratives during this time are difficult to gain access to?” “How have organizations insured access to digital infrastructure for distance learning?” and “How has your work pivoted currently in the times we are in?”

Check out the recording here!

The series was organized by Jessie Standifer and Jane Hammaker.

The program flyer for the first Navigating COVID-19 event.

Born and raised in Colorado, Trent is a 4th-year student at the University of Chicago, majoring in Global Studies and Economics. He's interested in international diplomacy, cultural exchange, and understanding how cooperation and friendship between people and countries can lead to benefits in many different ways. During the 2020 Summer, he worked as an intern for the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program. Before joining AIF, he interned with a nonprofit organization in Hong Kong to strengthen U.S.-China ties, and with the U.S. Department of the Interior, working on education and health policy for Native Americans. After graduation, he's planning to pursue a career in foreign service.

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