The letter informed Sampriti Ganguli that she had been chosen to attend a four-day, all expenses-paid conference in Budapest, Hungary--including a round-trip flight on a private charter. Ganguli, a recent graduate of the Southeast Asia Studies program at the School of Advanced International Studies, says she desperately wanted to believe what the letter told her, but couldn't ignore that the date she received the package was March 31.
"I thought it might be an early April Fool's joke," Ganguli says. "It just seemed so totally unbelievable."
Ganguli, thankfully, was later assured the letter was genuine--and, she discovered, she wouldn't be going alone.
Ganguli was one of 17 students and Fulbright Scholars studying at SAIS who were selected to attend the American Academy of Achievement's first International Achievement Summit. The summit, hosted by the Republic of Hungary, was held from June 20 to 23 in conjunction with the 16th NATO Workshop on Political-Military Decision Making.
The event brought together 130 graduate students in law, economics and international studies from 21 countries to attend a series of symposia and round table discussions with hundreds of NATO Workshop participants and eminent achievers in the sciences, businesses, professions and public service. The list of speakers included Gen. Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; Arpad Goncz, president of the Hungarian Republic; Story Musgrave, a NASA astronaut; and a host of other dignitaries and celebrities including Nobel laureates and Nobel Prize winners.
The American Academy of Achievement, founded in 1961, is a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the education and inspiration of youth primarily through its annual Salute to Excellence program, which brings together 100 men and women of exceptional accomplishment to share their experience with 400 of the nation's outstanding high school students. The 1999 International Achievement Summit marked the first time the organization has assembled graduate students for a similar event.
The students were chosen from a pool of nominees selected by administrators at international exchange programs such as the Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships and by the administration and faculty of more than 25 schools of international relations and diplomacy. The academy sought students with a community service background and high academic achievement in both their undergraduate and graduate careers.
Bonnie Wilson, associate dean for student affairs at SAIS, says the significant representation by SAIS students at the summit was "outstanding" and is a measure of the school's strong reputation.
"Certainly it tells me that our school and caliber of students are recognized internationally," Wilson says. "It also is a reflection of the fact that we have some truly exceptional young people. The academy must have been extremely impressed and must have recognized that these were the types of promising young students that should be involved in this graduate-level conference. It was a wonderful experience for them, and it was nice for this group to be able to experience it together."
The students, who came from the SAIS campuses in Washington and Bologna, Italy, were seen as international delegates and given VIP status from the moment they arrived in Budapest.
"It was just unbelievable from the time our plane landed," Ganguli says. "First there was a band playing for us, and then we were just whisked through customs. We were given a motorcade escort everywhere we went. Each event seemed to outdo the one prior."
The summit itself focused on NATO's role in the recent conflict in Kosovo. Gen. Clark gave a keynote presentation on his involvement in the military campaign, and other workshop participants, including foreign ministers and heads of state, openly discussed aspects of their jobs and decision-making processes. Students were encouraged to ask questions of the distinguished panel all through the summit.
Mark Van de Vreken, a SAIS Fulbright Scholar who attended the event, says he took from the conference a better appreciation and understanding of how policy planners talk to each other and how their often difficult decisions are made.
Van de Vreken says he also was impressed by the diverse panel of speakers the summit attracted.
"On the second day we got to meet three Nobel Prize winners in physics; Kathleen Battle, the opera singer; and just so many people from different backgrounds," said Van de Vreken, who concentrated in conflict management and international economics while at SAIS.
A highlight for many of the students came when they attended an event at the Hungarian State Opera House, after which they were treated to a private performance by Battle and an elegant meal served right on the concert stage. Battle chose to perform a cappella songs from her childhood, ones that she hadn't performed in years, and it took her a few tries to find the correct key. The students were touched that a renowned opera singer would offer such a personal performance.
Ganguli, who had gone from feeling the victim of a prank to hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries, summed up her experience succinctly.
"It was all pretty impressive," she says.
Along with Ganguli and Van de Vreken, the SAIS students selected to participate in the conference were Erhun Bas, Tanja Bernstein, Helen De Bleir, Jennifer Escott, Walter Ferrara, Jeff George, Gillian Johnson, Therese Kuhn, Brian Landan, Alice Lin, Peter Matz, Sakari Morrison, Matteo Pozzi, Amela Sapcanin and Peter Taylor.