Flexibility & Optimism: The Swiss and U.S. Fulbright Exchange During COVID-19

U.S. Fulbrighters in Switzerland

In September 2019, 13 students from the United States arrived in Switzerland to conduct research in their respective fields of study. They spread out over the country, from Basel to Lucerne, Fribourg, Bern, Lausanne, and Geneva. Filled with excitement, they were eager to capitalize on a year of living the Swiss life and focusing on their work. In March 2020, everything changed. In response to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Switzerland, five students made the difficult decision to return home to the United States, while the others made the equally wrenching choice to pass the crisis in Europe. In the testimonials below, several of these students who chose to stay in Europe share with us their experiences. We hope you enjoy their written and visual stories of life and study during the crisis.

Anna Giarratana 
Cooper Gould 
Noah Mennenga
Lidya Tadesse


Swiss Fulbrighters in the US

In summer 2019, eight Swiss students left for an academic year at universities in the United States. The scholars attended classes at, among other schools, Berkeley in California, Johns Hopkins in Maryland, and New York University (NYU). Not only did these students experience the world of academic study in the United States, but they also lived the dynamic life of a student on a U.S. university campus. Furthermore, they met with fellow Fulbrighters from all over the world, making their’s an unforgettable and life changing experience.  In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, some students chose to stay in the United States and finish their academic year. In the testimonials below, we learn more about their year studying in the United States and how they persevered through the pandemic, managing to have a fun and rewarding experience despite the crisis unfolding around them.

Claudio Berther
Nina Haug
Liburn Mehmetaj

US Fulbrighters in Switzerland

For my year in Switzerland as a U.S. Fulbrighter, I joined the Tobler Lab at the Center for Neuroeconomics at the University of Zürich as a postdoctoral research fellow. For my project, I studied the role of schizotypal personality traits in both perceptual and reward decision-making tasks.

Due to the fact that a lot of our work is online, we were able to continue to develop our behavioral tasks, have lab meeting discussions, carry on with classes and seminars, and even continue both our English and German social lunches! My main activity during the day is still my research; in fact, with online meetings I’m even busier than usual, since I can now participate in meetings both in the US and in Switzerland.

However, one aspect of home office that I have really appreciated is being able to take the time to cook meals that require more time throughout the day. I have been able to continue learning about Swiss culture through food, and have cooked some traditional Swiss dishes, such Bündner Capuns,Vaudoise/Neuchâteloise Sèche au Beurre, and Zürcher Geschnetzeltes.

I am also grateful that I live near the woods, and have been able to get out into nature and do some foraging. I am part of a Zürich foraging group, and we have had online events where we share what we forage on our solo hikes. I have gathered some wild garlic on my trips into the woods, and have used it to make some really delicious spring dishes.

Yet, the thing I miss the most right now is being able to go home for Sunday dinners. Usually, we’d gather as a family on Sundays to have big meals and spend time together. Obviously, this isn’t possible now, but hopefully in the not too distant future we will be able to do this again. Until then, I appreciate that I have been able to have video calls with family and friends, where we cooked meals together and then sat down to eat them while catching up.

Academically, my Fulbright experience to this point has far exceeded my expectations.  From designing and fabricating a several thousand-dollar mechanism to creating my own experimental test program, it has been the perfect combination of gaining experience in mechanical design while simultaneously stepping into the shoes of a PHD student for a year.  The takeaways from this experience will forever impact my professional path, and that is a gift with which I could never thank the Fulbright program for enough.

Personally, my time as a US Fulbrighter has been filled with immense growth paired with the forming of relationships that I know will last a lifetime.  The Swiss culture has pushed me to become a better person in a multitude of facets while providing me with some of the most welcoming, generous friends I’ve ever had.  Switzerland has become a part of my story and I will forever consider it a place I call home.

1.      Did you or your institute do something special in terms of community service or COVID 19 support?

My faith is a big part of my life and so when I heard there were missionaries in Asia literally starving because of the pandemic I knew I had to help in some way.  Through an organization that my uncle is the CEO of, Scriptures in Use, I’ve been able to give to those families in an effort to provide them with the ability to buy food, something many of us take for granted each and every day.

2.      What do you do during the day?

Thankfully, I’ve been able to keep my days fairly structured despite working remotely.  I have two zoom meetings a day – one in the morning and one in the evening – with work consuming my time in between.  My nights are often filled with a combination of exercising, playing guitar, editing drone footage, and zooming with friends from the US (even if that means getting up at 3am to do so!).  Additionally, another favorite activity of mine is frisbee and it has served as an excellent quarantine activity to do with a few friends.

3.      What is your main activity?

My work during coronavirus has primarily centered around an analysis of the pitch moment results from the flapping wing experiment which was performed by a PhD student in my lab before my arrival.  In summary, we are trying to use all the data we have available (time histories of forces, moments, kinematics, circulation, and vorticity), paired with the flow field images, in order to “back out” the specific physical mechanisms that are driving the response we see in the pitch moment.  If it sounds like “discovering physics” it kind of is… our civilization does not have a solid understand of how aerodynamic forces are specifically affected by the unsteady vortex structures on a wing, especially in flapping flight, and thus we are trying to close that gap in knowledge.

4.      What is your favorite meal?

Life during coronavirus has most definitely forced me to up my cooking abilities.  It has been fun experimenting with new foods and learning new techniques – a current favorite of mine is grilled veggies and smoked salmon on a bed of quinoa.

5.       What is your favorite show to watch?

As much as America might disown me for this, I’m not really much of a TV show/movie watcher!  If I had to choose, FRIENDS is my favorite show of all time – endless one liners and great comedy.

6.      What do you miss the most? or What would be the first thing you would do if everything would be back to normal?

I love food and I love people – the perfect combination of the two being eating out with friends!  Over the last few months I’ve really missed sharing a meal with a group of friends… there is a special sense of community created during such times.  I’m very much looking forward to eating out, having BBQs, and hanging out with my crew here in Switzerland.

I am studying my Master’s in Trumpet Performance in Luzern. I’m working with two professors, Huw Morgan and Immanuel Richter, both of whom play in Sinfonieorchester Basel. I knew Huw before studying here, so he helped get me connected with HSLU and Immanuel, so it’s been great to experience European trumpet culture and learn from them.

I played in 5-6 concerts outside of nursing homes with other musicians from my apartment! We played short concerts for them outside on the terrace, while they opened their windows or watched from a distance.

My days basically consist of practicing, homework, reading, walking, and talking with friends over facetime. I appreciate and enjoy that I’m still able to get my assignments/work finished each day with time to spare. I’ve also started playing ping pong and foosball with friends from my apartment, taking safety precautions, of course. As far as cooking, I’m not a great person to ask. I’ve been making a pretty good brunch on the weekends, though.

I miss being able to travel to new hiking spots. I know it’s technically still allowed, but I’m trying to limit public transportation, especially on longer train trips outside my canton. I’ve enjoyed getting to explore the places around me, but really miss being able to comfortably go somewhere farther away.

My time in Switzerland as a Fulbright grantee has been wonderful and I’ve met so many amazing people! My research involves in-depth interviews with Eritrean and Ethiopian migrant women living in the country and focuses on their journeys as they navigate through the Swiss health system and manage their illnesses. In conducting this research, I’ve had the great opportunity to learn more about and interact with the rich Habesha diaspora community here in Switzerland, which has become like my home-away-from-home during my time here.

Some highlight’s from daily life during the pandemic:

1.      Did you or your institute do something special in terms of community service or COVID 19 support?

During my time here, I’ve also been able to work on a multi-site/multi-national research questionnaire assessing university student’s experiences during this time of COVID-19/social distancing. The hope is to use this information to help universities and other organizations better support students during epidemics like we have seen now.

2.      What do you do during the day?

While I spend most days working (or at least trying to get work done), on days with good weather I’ve been enjoying going out for hikes on the Gurten or walks by the Aare. I also recently ordered a yoga mat and try to dedicate at least some time in the morning for stretching/meditating. On rainy days, I like to read (currently making my way through Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates).

3.      What is your favorite meal?

Lately I’ve been enjoying making veggie lasagna!

4. What is your favorite show to watch?

I recently finished watching the latest season of Succession on HBO, would definitely recommend!

5.      What do you miss the most? or What would be the first thing you would do if everything would be back to normal?

I think more than anything I miss the simple things I often took for granted before the age of social distancing—just being able to meet a friend for coffee or visiting the farmer’s market on the weekends is something I’m looking forward to once things get better.

Swiss Fulbrighters in the US

This year has been transformative in a positive sense in so many ways for me. The amount of inspiring people here in Berkeley, faculty and peers alike, seems to be endless. Listening to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, talking to researchers about legal and ethical implications of gene editing through CRISPR or being taught Health Law by a professor who has been a cardiologist for 15 years before changing course and go to Law School just to name a few. Experiencing that and much more would not have been feasible for me without the help of Fulbright to begin with.

During his exchange Claudio was featured in the “from all corners” podcast, portraying residents of International House:  https://www.buzzsprout.com/615802/2494069


I am studying piano at The New School. My Fulbright year has been very special, not only have I learnt a lot in music, but also learnt so much about the cultures and countries of the world. Then Coronavirus came and school had to close but they got me an electric piano for my home so I can practice. Our flat has a back and a frontyard which is a big source of joy. With my flatmates we make fires and grill. We even made Swiss ‘Schlangebrot’. And we had a little beachparty in our Brooklyn home with excellent homemade Peruvian food.

How would you describe your year in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar? What you are studying or researching?

I started my LLM program (master of law degree) at UCLA Law School, with a specialization in environmental law. I focused on exploring the synergies and relations between finance and environmental law, climate change, sustainability, as well as energy law. My specific research areas were fiduciary duties of investment managers in respect of environmental, social, and governance aspects and ways to develop a classification of sustainable activities, analyzing what is being done in Europe and their relevance in the US.  I moved to Los Angeles with my wife and our daughter in August 2019. We enjoyed and loved California, its landscapes, its people, culture, and, of course, the weather.

1.      Did you or your institute do something special in terms of community service or COVID 19 support?

Community service was complicated during the safer-at-home order that was ordered very early in Los Angeles. Still, I was personally able to secure personal protective equipment for children that I distributed among a few law school friends who are parents. Besides, we tried as much as possible to support local businesses that remained open during the safer-at-home order, buying mainly goods produced locally.

2.      What do you do during the day?

Studying was not easy with a toddler running around, so I mainly spent time with my daughter during the day, studying during nap times and at night. We read stories, made crafting activities, played in our backyard, and side-walk drawing with chalk.

3.  What is your favorite meal?

Just before the pandemic started, we went to see the Cirque du Soleil in L.A., where we had a fantastic time and some delicious pretzels. Our daughters kept asking for those during the lockdown, so we decided to bake them (once we were able to find active yeast, which was out of stock almost everywhere).

4. What is your favorite show to watch?

Our favorite show during this situation was “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime. Watching this amazing show and having a good laugh, with a glass of California wine, provided a very appreciated relief in those very unusual times.

5.      What do you miss the most? What would be the first thing you will do when things go back to normal?

I really miss playing beach volleyball in Santa Monica, where we used to play every Friday with the team I created with UCLA students from my program (the “Subpoena Colada”). And as a family, we used to go to the beach all the time. Luckily, LA county beaches reopened for active recreation on May 13, 2020, so we were able to enjoy walking and watching the sunset in Venice Beach a few times more before going back to Switzerland.