High-ranking US official visits UM for roundtable on cultural, educational affairs

While hundreds of eager students stormed the Watsco Center Tuesday for Mr. Worldwide’s “What Matters to U” event, a top-ranking government official scanned the array of scholars and professionals seated around him in a small meeting room just across campus.

After welcoming the attendees, United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon remarked on his trip to sunny South Florida as the crowd of representatives from countries ranging from Pakistan to South Africa listened closely.

“I clearly went to the wrong university,” McKeon joked. “I studied undergrad at the University of Notre Dame and I can safely predict that on March 28, it was 30 degrees and snowing. I’d reconsider some life choices but it’s too late.”

Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon (left) addresses the roundtable of Fulbright and BridgeUSA scholars as Devika Milner (right), UM's assistant dean and director of study abroad, listens on at Lakeside Pavilion Tuesday, March 30.
Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon (left) addresses the roundtable of Fulbright and BridgeUSA scholars as Devika Milner (right), UM's assistant dean and director of study abroad, listens on at Lakeside Pavilion Tuesday, March 30. Photo credit: Parker Gimbel

McKeon visited the University of Miami Tuesday night to discuss diversity and international scholarship within the United States Department of State and the U.S. education system at the “UM Educational and Cultural Affairs Program Roundtable Discussion.”

In the Lakeside Pavilion multi-purpose room on UM’s Coral Gables campus, Fulbright and BridgeUSA scholars and professionals from countries ranging from Hungary to South Africa gathered to discuss their experiences studying in the U.S.

“The research techniques that I learned here to save and preserve our coral reefs and to save our oceans are going to help me save corals back home,” said Khadija Haider, a 5th-year environmental science Ph.D student and Fulbright Scholar from Pakistan. “Climate change does not know boundaries, and it’s affecting the coral reefs in the U.S. as much as it is going to in Pakistan.”

Haider was one of over 20 scholars from countries including Egypt, Slovakia, Colombia, France and Ukraine invited to exchange their stories with each other, McKeon and UM Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Jeffrey L. Duerk. Their disciplines included architecture, medicine and real-estate development, among others.

Devika Milner, assistant dean and director of UM’s study abroad program, moderated the forum, which touched on topics ranging from religious tolerance to the difficulties of living in a foreign country. After the event, Milner said she feels the diversity of the attendees showed how many students could benefit from pursuing a Fulbright scholarship.

“There are so many different types of Fulbrights, and that’s something that we are really trying to push out to students,” Milner said. “It’s not just for someone who is a scientist in STEM. It’s not just for somebody who is working in politics.”

The Fulbright grant, funded by the federal government, covers round-trip transportation to and from the host country, language or orientation courses, tuition, supplemental health and accident insurance, a stipend for the academic year based on the living cost in the host country and an allowance for books and research.

After the event, attendees were invited to stay and talk as McKeon participated in a series of interviews for South Florida media. During a sit-down with The Miami Hurricane, McKeon spoke about his experiences living in London during his undergraduate education.

Executive Vice Dean for Academic Affairs and Provost Jeffrey Duerk thanks McKeon with a gift at the end of Tuesday's roundtable discussion. McKeon informed Duerk that he may not be able to accept the gift due to regulations regarding the payment of public officials.
Executive Vice Dean for Academic Affairs and Provost Jeffrey Duerk (left) thanks McKeon (right) with a gift at the end of Tuesday's roundtable discussion. McKeon informed Duerk that he may not be able to accept the gift due to regulations regarding the payment of public officials. Photo credit: Parker Gimbel

“It changed my life, changed my perspective and really interested me in foreign policy,” McKeon said. “Have an overseas experience, either a study abroad or even a short trip abroad, because it will open your eyes to the possibilities of working in international affairs.”

After graduating from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s in government and international studies, McKeon received his J.D. from Georgetown University.

Prior to his role as deputy secretary, McKeon served as a senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington and served in several national security positions in the Obama-Biden Administration.

His life-changing experience abroad echoed those shared by the roundtable participants. Since his time at Notre Dame, McKeon said he has seen the impact studying in the U.S. can have on the perspectives of grant recipients.

“It’s a life changing experience,” McKeon said. “They have a different appreciation for the United States and the American people. And they will take back different ideas to their countries that maybe will lead to a little bit of change in their countries.”

Now, over 30 years after his own semester abroad, McKeon starts his days with an intelligence briefing and staff meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. He said he hopes more foreign citizens find the opportunity he found in London here in the U.S.

“Bit by bit, people have their attitudes changed, both about the United States and about what is possible at home,” McKeon said. “Now that’s a victory.”

The full panel of Fulbright and Bridge USA scholars throw up the U with McKeon after the conclusion of Tuesday's event.
The full panel of Fulbright and Bridge USA scholars throw up the U with McKeon after the conclusion of Tuesday's event. Photo credit: Parker Gimbel

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program grants support for an individually designed study or research plan, artistic project or English Teaching Assistantship for one academic year in a country outside the U.S. Applicants may be undergraduate seniors who anticipate graduating, master’s or Ph.D. candidates and young professionals. Application is limited to one country program or geographic region.

The Fulbright Foreign Student Program enables graduate students, young professionals and artists from abroad to study and conduct research in the United States. It operates in over 160 countries with approximately 4,000 foreign students receiving Fulbright scholarships every year.