At the recent WYSTC 2014 conference we interviewed Deputy Assistant Secretary Robin Lerner from the U.S. Department of State about programmes in J-1 visa category, trends and relations with agents.


Can you give us an overview of the J1, the aims of the programme and the benefits to both the students and to the USA as a host country?

“Well the J-1 visa, allows people to come to the U.S. on a structured educational or cultural programme. Using the J-1 visa as a vehicle, we designate American ‘sponsor’ organisations to implement privately funded exchanges without U.S. Government funding, but that adhere to Department of State regulations. We call this the Exchange Visitor Program, and it is a very useful and successful tool in our public diplomacy toolbox. You know, we don’t have the level of funding to bring everyone we want to the U.S. on an exchange programme, so the privately funded exchanges represent an opportunity. We look at the Exchange Visitor Program as a true public-private partnership between the sponsors and the Department of State, where we are kind of in it together. We regulate them, they have to implement the programme per our regulations; but their successes are our successes, and their failures are our failures.

So we are really in this together, which is why presenting our vision and priorities at conferences like WYSTC is so important, as is our oversight and monitoring over their programmes. With all that said, the Exchange Visitor Program provides so many ways that young people can come and have a meaningful experience in the U.S. They don’t necessarily want to come over and be a tourist for a couple of weeks; they want to do something more productive. I’ve been talking to so many summer students, and it wouldn’t be enough for them to spend a couple of weeks at the beach. They want to put something on their resumes, they want to build their skills, they want to improve their English and that is going to give them the edge when they go home and look for jobs.”

In terms of the programme and the number of participants, is that steady, increasing or decreasing? Are you looking to increase in certain areas?

“It has grown in some areas and decreased in others. We have seen a sizable decrease in Summer Work Travel (SWT). We capped it because it grew very, very large, so it is down in numbers which is positive because we have been reforming that programme to have greater visibility. Other areas like internships have grown. The high school programme, for example, is holding steady but has perhaps dropped a little bit. It is getting more difficult to get school placements for the J visa students. The university categories continue to grow. The overall numbers have gone down, because SWT has gone down, but the internship and camp counsellor categories are definitely growing.”

So was there a deliberate policy to restrict the SWT? Was that to focus on quality rather than quantity?

“A few years ago now, the Department really looked introspectively at the SWT category and asked what was happening. There were a few incidents that were problematic. We emerged saying let’s keep it, but let’s improve it. And that’s what we’ve been doing and we’ve seen significant improvements to the point where we are able to promote the cultural aspects of the programme. A few years ago we were not in the promotion stage, and I mean promoting the benefits and what it brings. The J1 visa as a vehicle for exchange allows us to be an accessible country for people to come and learn about the U.S., to learn about Americans, and for Americans to learn about people from other cultures. That is really the backbone behind having this vehicle that allows people into our country on controlled, short-term, time-defined programmes, and then they go home and take their skills with them. That’s how we feel like we increase the understanding of who we are as a people and a country around the world.

And it works brilliantly because we have people coming from something like 200 countries and territories on different J1 programmes. So if they are going to come and invest their time and energy to do an exchange in the United States, they need to get the right kind of experience. That is where I am at. We need to make sure that the quality is there, and that safety and welfare are the number one priority.”

I gather you had a breakfast meeting with agents working with the J1 programme this morning. Can you tell me about your relations with agents?

“Our official relations are with the American sponsors, but since I started this job it has been very important to me to learn as much as I can about the perspective of the agents. Foreign agents are the first image of a programme, they are the face of a programme in a different country. The sponsors are not the first face of the programme, and neither am I, agents are. So they need to understand where we are with the evolution of our programmes, they need to understand what the purpose is and what the goals are and how the programme fits in with public diplomacy. So since I’ve been coming to WYSTC, I have been working hard to get sessions just for foreign agents and that evolved into what happened this morning. They want a chance to meet us and ask us questions, we want to meet them, and they have very interesting perspectives. For example, in China it is important for us to understand what is going on there in the exchange community. You get to sit down with somebody working in that country and their perspective is more elucidating than the perspective I have. And I don’t want us to seem scary to agents and off limits, so I welcome them in my sessions. I do a session for them and another for everyone. As part of our reform, we need our foreign agents to understand this is a public diplomacy programme. And when they work with an American sponsor to place a student, they need to know whether or not that is going to be an acceptable placement or not.”

Are there any markets that you would like to grow the programme in? Any countries that are not sending as many students as you’d hope?

“We’d love to see growth across the globe, but certainly in Africa where participation levels are much lower than in other continents. But it’s not just that students get accepted, they have to go through a whole visa analysis. We don’t tell sponsors where to go, but we certainly encourage them to look at places where participation is low. And maybe through some partnerships we can get at those regions as well, with more thoughtful partnerships.”

You don’t engage in direct promotion to agents?

“No. This is a private sector programme, so we are not in a place to direct American sponsors or their partners to go and set up shop in a particular country. I can’t guarantee that people are going to get visas, so sponsors and agents likely would need to do a market analysis in some places and test it out. But I can help create partnerships, I can hear from our embassies as to what they are seeking, what kind of engagement they are looking at and then bring our sponsors and embassies together to talk about what their priorities are and what can come out of that.”

Do you have any events or training through embassies for agents?

“Some embassies have special events for agents. Some do seminars for agents, often on how to best prepare for visa applications and departures. Some have very close awareness of the sending agents and attend their fairs and so on. It is embassy-specific. Our embassies have different levels of human resources, which we are sensitive to. We focus our efforts with embassies on understanding the opportunities these private sector programmes represent, and how to tap into them in terms of alumni, and how to understand the industry implementing them. I want to create more synergies around the opportunities they represent. We are definitely doing a lot more of that and U.S. Embassy Dublin’s J1 Connect event is real example of that.”

You mentioned there were some issues a few years ago with the programme. Was anything done in terms of details of the programme and legislation to allay safety concerns?

“After the Hershey situation in 2011, in May of 2012 we put forward new regulations which reformed the governing regulations, which are the rules by which the sponsors can run their programmes, and we are preparing now another set of reforms.”

Are you able to expand on the content of the new reforms? 

“I can tell you that the things we would propose reforming are a product three years of monitoring summer programmes, talking directly to more than 3,000 participants per year, talking with employers and conducting seminars with sponsors. We are now analysing complaints and incidents about the programmes sent to our office. We have a body of knowledge built up of from what we have directly observed is going on. And we’ve been listening to sponsors; we speak to sponsors all the time. We had our first two-day seminar with all the SWT sponsors, listened to what keeps them awake at night, explained what we see as positive trends, and they got to ask lots of questions. That really informs everyone’s thinking. My approach has been to be very communicative and transparent with sponsors, so I think we are in a much better place than we used to be.

And, my new blog, called Route J-1 is a way of showing this. I’m posting examples of how the programme is succeeding in its educational and cultural goals across the country, and succeeding in our public diplomacy aims. People can follow our programme highlights across categories on the Bureau’s Facebook page, and also on Twitter (#j1visa and #routej1).”

You mentioned the high school programme was declining slightly. I’ve heard some suggestion that the F1 secondary school sector is growing and that is overshadowing the J1.

“That is what we are hearing from sponsors. The F1 has been steadily growing in numbers. The F-1 programme is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of State. My staff meets with the office that oversees that programme regularly, as we need to understand each other’s programmes. From the J-1 vantage point, I have heard that some schools are having a tough time creating a space for J-1s. A student on a J-1 exchange becomes an extra body for the school to account for.  Unfortunately, many of the schools our sponsors seek to send J-1 high school students are oversubscribed with their existing population. Because the J-1 is a visa for a structured educational or cultural exchange, we don’t want those students to have to pay for a slot in a public school. We believe schools gain much positive international exposure and cross-cultural learning through J-1 students. Our plan is to engage more with school administrators to talk about the benefits of what a J student brings, what is the benefit of having a sponsor and what should they expect when they have a J student. It is not just an extra body in the school, it is a network, internationalisation, culture and learning and that is where we need to be.”

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