On 8 and 9 March 2021, the British Council hosted Interchange 21, a new online engagement event for Commonwealth Scholars and Alumni, organised on behalf of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK (CSC).

The objective of Interchange 21 was to create a space for Scholars and alumni to connect with each other and learn about the work and impact alumni are undertaking in their individual fields post-Scholarship. The event marked two significant dates in the Commonwealth Scholarship calendar, Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day, and showcased the unity of purpose amongst Scholars and alumni in delivering sustainable development impact and improving the lives of vulnerable communities through education, research, and knowledge sharing.

Featuring presentations from over 30 alumni across a range of development issues, the event brought together a wealth of expertise with over 500 Scholars and alumni attending over the two days, and 420 joining for the welcome and keynote on 8 March.

Setting the tone for impact: Richard Middleton and Alicia Herbert OBE open Interchange 21

Video conference screen showing Richard Middleton and Alicia Herbert OBE

Richard Middleton and Alicia Herbert OBE at the opening of Interchange 21

The event opened with a welcome from Richard Middleton, Chair of the CSC, who celebrated the achievements of Commonwealth Scholarship Alumni and the opportunity the event brought in enabling Scholars and alumni to discuss and learn from each other. He also acknowledged the challenges of the current environment and commended the ongoing commitment and resilience of Scholars and alumni despite this. Drawing attention to the damaging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on girls’ access to education, Richard highlighted the CSC’s priority in 2021 to support girls’ education as “the greatest investment to a sustainable and happy future” for all.

Following his welcome, Richard introduced the keynote speaker, Alicia Herbert OBE, Director for Education, Gender and Equality, and Gender Envoy at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). In her keynote, Alicia Herbert discussed the FCDO’s Strategy on Gender and Girl’s Education, during which many attendees shared comments and experiences from their own work and studies, as well as expressing shock at some of the barriers still facing girls today.

Girls’ Education matters: perspectives from across the Commonwealth

Video conference screen with Alumni panel members

Commonwealth Alumni panellists speaking at Interchange 21

As part of event opening, four Commonwealth Alumni participated in a panel discussion on ‘Why is Girls’ Education Important?’. The panellists, who each represented different sectors and fields of work, were all united in their approach to promoting and contributing to the empowerment of women and girls. The panellists all provided useful insights into their different country contexts, representing India, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Uganda.

There were many fascinating issues raised during the panel discussion including: violence; access; disability; engaging the boy child; menstruation; socioeconomic and cultural norms; mentoring; government engagement; and basic, systemic and life-long education. In summary, one panellist reflected that whilst the issues and experiences were quite different in their different country contexts, the messages and the need for action were the same.

From cyber awareness to food security

Over the course of the two-day event, more than 30 alumni delivered online presentations about their work and impact and engaged with attendees via online chats and open Q&A sessions. The presentation topics represented each of the CSC’s six development themes and covered a broad range of subject areas, from the impact of Covid-19, echocardiography, and childhood blindness, to food security, cultural confidence, cyber awareness, and climate resilience.

Video screenshot of Dr Herine Otieno

Commonwealth Alumnus Dr Herine Otieno’s video summary at Interchange 21

As part of the opportunity, all presenters were offered presentation skills training by an experienced media and science communicator as well as being supported to produce a short summary video which was shown at the beginning of each presentation session. This meant that presenters could clearly demonstrate the significance of their work and build connections with attendees across different disciplines.

On day 2 Scholars, alumni and guests were also able to join a mindfulness session delivered by Fiona Dunkley, who reminded attendees that in today’s ever fluid challenging world, it is important to take time for personal well-being. Fiona shared her insight into mindfulness and the positive impact it can have.

Interchange 21 closed on 9 March with Andrew Chadwick from the British Council leading the congratulations to all those who had contributed to the success of the event.

The CSC and British Council would like to thank all the speakers, presentations and moderators who contributed to Interchange 21 and to guests from the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), CSC, FCDO, and British Council who joined to support the event. The CSC would also like to thank all Commonwealth Scholars and Alumni who attended the event.