I just finished Robert Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great, and like his other histories of czarist Russia (Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra), it was excellent. Catherine was obsessed with opening her historically insular people and lands to ideas, culture and art from the west, and improving Russia’s standing and perception in the world through international diplomacy. And she had some success in nurturing a learned class in Russia and impacting the international perception of Russia.
But what she lacked was the ability to truly scale her efforts. Even with her immense wealth, Catherine was sending only handfuls of Russians abroad, and bringing in limited numbers of foreigners. Most of those she brought in were concentrated in Moscow or St. Petersburg. But what if she had a J1 program?
According to the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, under the J1 Exchange Visitor Program, since 2005, the U.S. has hosted 161,000 Chinese, 164,000 Russians, 117,000 Brazilians, 71,000 Turks and 34,000 Indians; 80% of these visitors are under the age of 30. Although there are some government funded J1 programs, most of these visitors come under the public-private structure of the Exchange Visitor Program that are of zero cost to the U.S. taxpayer. This structure has allowed the Exchange Visitor Program to scale dramatically, leaning on the private sector to provide much of the program infrastructure and support.
Exchange visitors go to every part of the U.S., working in theme parks, hotels, and ski resorts, as au pairs in American homes, as interns and trainees in American companies and as high school students in American schools. Having a work component to the exchange means that the program is accessible to interested students of more limited means than a typical international student, and exchange visitors interact with Americans from all walks of life. When they return home, forever changed, they bring a deeper understanding of the U.S. and its people, language and culture; and as they continue through life to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, business people, parents and leaders, they carry with them their experiences in the U.S. The result is worldwide, personal diplomacy on a large scale. The benefits to the participants and to the U.S. are immeasurable.
The United States desperately needs immigration reform, and NAFSA, the Alliance and anyone else in international education that I’ve talked to would agree and support 99% of the current Senate bill. Pathway to citizenship issues rightfully dwarf exchange visitor issues. It would be a shame, though, to unintentionally lose the scalability brought about by the effective public/private infrastructure of the Exchange Visitor Program. According to the Alliance, that is exactly what will happen if the current Senate bill were enacted into law, as buried in the 700+ page bill are a handful of paragraphs that would make radical changes to the Exchange Visitor Program.
Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your comments.