During the summer of 2006, over 26,000 international staff from one hundred countries worked in camps across the United States. Their positions included counselors, program staff, administrators, cooks, housekeepers, maintenance staff, and others. Their motivation was as different as the individuals themselves, but all made the decision to come to the United States, learn more about American culture, and meet American people in ways most tourists never experience. The majority of these international staff were students participating in a government-approved, cultural-exchange program.
The benefits to the camps and campers are almost as great as the benefits to the internationals themselves. Most participating camps become true international communities with staff from multiple countries. Campers are able to develop an understanding of people from countries only before heard about on the news. Both internationals and Americans are able to learn to understand and appreciate each other’s similarities and differences as they strive to create a camp community that values and respects them all. A lesson in global understanding is probably never more enjoyable. The details will be remembered for years to come and will have lasting impact as these young people, staff, and campers, grow into the decision makers of tomorrow.
Camps also choose to invite international staff to their camps because it enhances their program goals and furthers their youth development objectives. They add a rich array of diverse skills and many of these staff have a high work ethic and much-needed, advanced program skills. This dimension brings increased depth to their program and all aspects of their camp community.
The Cultural Exchange Program
The cultural exchange program most often used for international staff is the J1 cultural exchange visa program administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, a department of U.S. Homeland Security. Through this program, participants can only be sponsored by organizations who have applied for and been granted a visa designation from the State Department. They are called program sponsors.
There are two different camp programs—the camp counselor program and the summer work travel program. Both have strict visa guidelines and a number of accountabilities for the participant, the camp, and the program sponsor. Most camps use established program sponsor agencies because the government application, regulatory compliance, and liability is extremely burdensome to administer. Program sponsors are subject to frequent audit from Homeland Security officials throughout the recruitment, placement, and participation process. Most program sponsors recruit, interview, and help camps select international staff. They spot check references and require applicants to obtain the best available background check in their country and even provide help with, or in some countries, manage this process, if necessary. They usually handle the visa and often the travel arrangements, as well. They are accountable to the U.S. government for those staff and provide support to the camp and the international for the duration of the program. Many program sponsors also help with direct placements for camps that have found potential participants on their own. Camps enter into a formal agreement with these program sponsors that outlines the expectations of the camp, the sponsor, and the staff member.
Both the camp counselor and summer work travel programs are true cultural exchange programs rather than just visa work programs—and camps must be sure they have built the cultural exchange dimension into their expectations. A camp cannot switch participants between programs. Both programs can last no more than four months, and the visa cannot be extended. A travel period of up to four weeks is encouraged after the period of work at camp is completed. That camp work period will usually be about sixty-three days. Participants must receive the same pay and benefits offered to their American counterparts in both programs. They are considered employees of the camp by the Internal Revenue Service and must obtain Social Security cards. Camps should withhold taxes subject to the minimum withholding allowance, and staff can apply to get those taxes refunded at the end of the calendar year. Most states also require that the camp obtains worker’s compensation insurance on their international staff.
The Camp Counselor Program
The Summer Work Travel Program
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service tracks and monitors all foreign nationals participating in student and exchange programs. The monitoring system is called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and allows program sponsors to report participant whereabouts electronically. Camps are required to comply with the reporting system of their program sponsor when staff physically arrive in their camps. The program sponsor in turn is responsible for complying with the SEVIS reporting to the government. It is extremely important that SEVIS procedures are followed and that internationals return to their home country at the conclusion of their program. Camps should not encourage international participants to remain in the United States after their visa period has ended. Internationals not returning home are tracked and that information may impact that individual’s ability to enter the U.S. in the future, visa trends in that person’s home country, and government support for the entire camp exchange program.
Preparation and Support Results in Success
The success of an exchange program is directly related to the preparation and support that goes into it. Camps should establish regular communication with the international staff member as soon as the placement has been confirmed. Provide as much written material about the camp and program as possible. Be sure they are fully aware of camp expectations for them and be honest in the assessment of their skills in matching camp needs. Put them in contact with other staff, both American and international. If the camp has had previous international staff from that country, create a mentoring situation to get the international ready for travel and immersion in the camp. Designate someone on the camp staff to be the international contact person both before camp and during the summer. This might be a good position for a returning international staff member who embraces the culture and tradition of the camp.
Camp directors should establish good working relationships with program sponsors. That begins with articulating the type of staff a camp is seeking as well as information about any special requirements or conditions of placement. Once a staff member has been placed, the camp should communicate with the program sponsor about any situations that impact that international’s ability or willingness to have a successful camp experience. That includes illness, family emergency, personal issues, job performance, change in position, willingness to follow rules and procedures, and voluntary or involuntary termination. Camps should be sure that internationals have access to their program sponsor placement coordinator throughout their experience. The relationship between the camp and the international should never be severed without the approval and guidance of the program sponsor.
Program sponsors are required to provide orientation to international participants as part of the visa regulations. That orientation is about American culture and camps in general. The camp should be prepared to provide specific orientation to its program and traditions. It is advisable to do this before the international is asked to participate in staff training. It helps to address cultural gaps and will position the staff member to have a more positive staff training experience. Training topics should include cultural differences and perceptions, sexual practices, sexual harassment, hygiene, and clothing norms. It is a good time to intentionally explore cultural stereotypes. Asking the international staff what they think they already know about Americans will give a camp director tremendous insight into the challenges of assimilation. It is advisable to conduct this orientation without American staff present and to conduct a separate orientation for your American staff. This separate orientation should help them explore ways to work with international staff in an international community and is a good time to explore cultural stereotypes with them also. Camps might consider developing a mentoring or buddy system between American and international staff.
Resolving Challenges to Adjustment
Money can be a sensitive issue with all staff. Internationals should be paid pocket money and reimbursements according to the guidelines of their program sponsor. This includes additional money for each day worked beyond the initial sixty-three-day commitment. Let them know the pay schedule soon after they arrive so they can plan accordingly. Remember that internationals may have difficulty cashing checks.
Sharing Their Culture
Another dimension of the exchange program is evaluation. The staff member, the camp, and the program sponsor should all be evaluated. International staff should be evaluated on their performance using the forms provided by the program sponsor. In addition, the camp may want to use its own performance evaluation system. The international staff should have the opportunity to evaluate the camp. A camp might consider using the same evaluation system it does with American staff but, in addition, specifically address camp support for internationals. The international staff member will also be asked to complete an evaluation of the camp by the program sponsor. Camps should ask their program sponsor if there is helpful information to share from those evaluations. The last aspect of evaluation is the camp assessment of the program sponsor.
Value-Added Opportunity and Resource
The use of international staff has evolved over the last several decades from a value-added opportunity to a needed and sought-after resource. Planning for and managing an effective and positive international staff experience involves multiple activities before, during, and after camp. It begins with strong communication between camp, program sponsor, and potential staff member during the selection and placement process—and continues as the staff member is preparing to travel to camp. During their stay at camp, the depth of training and support provided will directly impact their adjustment and performance. Making staff members feel valued will give them added incentive to do their best. Establishing and maintaining a strong partnership with the program sponsor during the entire process will provide a skilled resource for both camp and staff in problem solving and reaching program expectations.
Sharon Kosch is the chair of the American Camp Association (ACA) National Public Policy Committee and represents ACA with the International Cultural Exchange Organizations group. She has over twenty-five years experience with camp administration and working with international staff.
Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.