Sarah (center),  in a break between sessions

Margot Tjolle (left) and Sarah Philo (right) presenting the group’s Marshall Plan

The group after “winning” the Marshall Plan presentation

All of the seminar participants outside the conference center in Brussels.


“From April 27 to 29, I had the wonderful opportunity to represent Fulbright Portugal at this year’s EU & US Young Leaders Seminar hosted in Brussels, Belgium. There were 50 total participants, with American student representatives from Fulbright commissions throughout the EU and European students from various Erasmus Mundus master’s programs. The theme of this year’s seminar was “The Future of Democracy”. The seminar topic was chosen over a year ago, when the threats to democracy did not include another war in Europe. We discussed both internal and external dangers to democracy over the course of the two days in sessions focusing on the current state of trans-Atlantic democracy, technology, and how we can rebuild trust in democratic systems, among others. We heard from people at all levels of government in the European Union, from city mayors to department heads in the European Commission. The seminar culminated in developing and presenting a “Marshall Plan 2.0”, with the focus on rebuilding representative democracies.


A major theme throughout the seminar was how a lack of trust at all levels is undermining representative democracies. People who don’t trust that their governments can deliver for them are more likely to search for alternatives to democracy, and governments that don’t trust their citizens know what is best for their lives no longer aim to represent those citizens. Trust needs to come from both directions in order for democracy to work, and right now that is not happening. We talked a lot about ways we can help foster that trust in ourselves and countries, particularly as “future leaders” of democracy. I am a current PhD candidate in the University of Washington School of Public Health, and I am completing a year of my dissertation research in Lisbon, Portugal. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen a complete erosion in trust between people and their public health and government institutions. I hope that I can take some of what we learned and discussed during the seminar to apply it to my future public health career. I understand that well-functioning public health and medical systems can increase trust in democracy.


One of the more fulfilling aspects of the seminar was creating a Marshall Plan for the 21st century. The first Marshall Plan was primarily a post WWII European development program funded by the US. We were tasked with rethinking a trans-Atlantic plan to help strengthen democracy. All the seminar participants were split into three groups to develop the plans. We then gave five-minute presentations on the plans and were judged by a panel in a “Shark Tank” format. My group decided to focus on a bottom-up approach to helping rebuild democracy, by providing grants to local communities and organizations to address specific community needs. The other groups focused on funding to tackle climate change and a developing a democracy resilience fund. It was fascinating to hear all the different ideas about strengthening our democracies. It showed me that there are numerous different ideas, and we all bring different things to the table. Working together can bring creative and unique approaches to the world’s problems. Despite disagreements within my group, we were able to come up with a cohesive plan and “won” the Shark Tank presentation.


It was great to participate in a seminar that is wildly different from what I do on a day-to-day basis. I am a Fulbright student grantee researching in an environmental microbiology lab. I often think about how public health can lead to effective government, but I rarely talk about these ideas with other people studying good governance. Attending this seminar reinforced my belief that public health has a crucial role to play in strengthening our democratic systems. I am also thankful to have met other people thinking about these problems in a critical way. The Fulbright Program has provided me with numerous unique opportunities, in particular, by attending this seminar. Getting to interact with other young people from so many different places is an experience unique to the Fulbright Program, and I am incredibly thankful to have been chosen to represent Fulbright Portugal.”


Sarah Philo is a Fulbright US Research Student, 2021/2022