Interview with Mr. Matthew Bikoff

Alumni Outreach Coordinator at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State

Mr. Bikoff, you work as an Alumni Outreach Coordinator at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State. What does your job as a coordinator involve more specifically? What are your daily activities?

For the past two years, I had the pleasure of being the Alumni Outreach Coordinator, where I helped manage the communications and outreach to the network of #ExchangeAlumni from all over the world. My job included presentations about the alumni network to current exchange participants, collaborating with partners at the State Department to share highlights of the incredible work alumni are doing in their communities, and running our social media platforms that reach over 260,000 people! In December 2019, I changed positions in our office, and I am now a Regional Alumni Coordinator where I work directly with U.S. citizen alumni of our international exchange programs. I’m sure you all know of Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbright scholars who are in your communities in North Macedonia. I met quite a few of them during my visit! I focus on developing programs and initiatives that caters to our U.S. citizen alumni, including professional development seminars and small grant opportunities that are similar to AEIF. It’s been exciting to see how Americans continue to engage with the countries they went to during their exchanges.

You visited North Macedonia in November 2019, and under the supervision of the Exchanges and Alumni Coordinator at the Public Affairs section of the US Embassy in Skopje, Mr. GazmendIlazi, you had meetings with a number of alumni and had the chance to get acquainted closely with their project activities. What are your overall impressions of the work the alumni are doing in N. Macedonia?

My visit to North Macedonia really opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of projects that alumni are involved in, crossing all professional sectors and regions of the country. Even though my visit was only for a few days, I learned about how alumni in North Macedonia created and sustained an active alumni association and how alumni are leaders at their universities, companies, and within your communities. In Skopje, I could see how you are making a difference in the civil society, government, academia, and in tech. Additionally, I left Skopje for a day where I had great meetings with alumni in Tetovo, Gostivar, and at the South East European University. I was thrilled to attend an information session about the InnoTech Club Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) project, and since my visit I’ve been following the project now that it is up and running.

Something else that really stood out to me was how alumni are making connections and developing projects that are being run independently from the U.S. Embassy in Skopje. One example was the exhibition I saw at the Institute of Spiritual and Cultural heritage of the Albanians, and how the team that put together the exhibit said it would not have been possible without their participation in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). You all are true change-makers, and I was reinvigorated to return to Washington, DC to tell my entire team about the great work that is going on in North Macedonia.

Mr. Bikoff, you also had a meeting with the new president and members of the Executive board of MAAA. What are your expectations from the new management? Do you have any suggestions concerning the direction in which they should lead MAAA in the future?

I think the new MAAA management has many great ideas for a productive and exciting year. Alumni associations are a great way to build relations between members while welcoming more recent alumni into the community. Your vision for holding meetings and brainstorming sessions that will be open to all MAAA members was fantastic, and I was excited to hear that you’ll be focusing on holding meetings and events outside of Skopje. During my visit, I learned about the annual concert, and it looked like the December event was a success! By having a mix of larger events that support good causes as well as smaller projects that connect alumni with each other, MAAA is in a good position to grow and thrive.

The 2020 AEIF has been announced recently and the topic is entirely focused on strengthening the position of women in the society. Why?

This year, we decided to make some changes to the AEIF competition. Now alumni are submitting proposals to their local U.S. Embassy or Consulate; and you only need to have teams of two alumni instead of three. With these changes, you now don’t need to go through our website, and we hope that it’s easier to find someone to collaborate with if you have a great idea.

As we planned out this year’s competition, we looked back at themes that resonated with our global network and saw that Women and Girl’s Empowerment was consistently popular. We were excited to see how the focus on strengthening the position of women in society could lead to strong proposals from all over the world. As we continue to adapt the competition based on feedback from alumni, we look forward to exploring other themes that are important to the alumni community for future competitions!

The application deadline in North Macedonia is coming up soon, so I recommend that you reach out to Gazmend Ilazi, the Exchanges and Alumni Coordinator at the Public Affairs section of the US Embassy in Skopje, with questions about your proposal before they are due!

Could you please share with us your best tips for successful projects?

The Public Affairs Section at the Embassy in Skopje will be the best resource for you as you shape your projects, but there are definitely a few things that I recommend.

The most important piece of advice is to be clear, concise, and compelling in your proposal. Double check your writing, and make sure that everything you write is easy for the review panel to understand. The best proposals have attainable goals, objectives that directly support the goals, and good descriptions of each project activity.

Please take a close look at your budget, and make sure that your budget narrative clearly describes why all items are necessary to complete your project. If you have cost-share or in-kind contributions, include them in the narrative.

The proposal needs to demonstrate what each person on the project team will be responsible for and show how each team member has the relevant experience and expertise to dedicate to the project.

Be creative! The review committee for the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund always looks at projects that are realistic, interesting, and unique. Having a new and innovative idea to address a problem in your community will go further than projects that have already been funded throughout the years.

In the end, what would be your message to the MAAA management and MAAA members?

Keep up the good work and listen to each other. As MAAA continues to grow and add new members each year, I encourage you to hear what the newest members of the association have to say, and to come up with ideas that have never been done before. I would also encourage you to have events and meet-ups by areas of interest and expertise, as those can facilitate conversations specific to the field of interest. Remember to reach out to Gazmend Ilaziand the U.S. Embassy when you want to share any success stories!

Interviewed by Zorica Trajkova


Bulding bridges of cooperation
between the United States and North Macedonia