Dear Senators Lamar & Alexander (TN),
As someone who has grown up working in the camping industry and who is tremendously passionate about cultural exchange, I am writing to you to ask for your help to eliminate the provisions in the Senate Immigration Bill (S.744) that would greatly diminish the value of the International Cultural Exchange program. The specific part of the Senate immigration bill in question comes under the "prevention of trafficking of persons" section, in which camp staff and other exchange visitors are defined as "workers”, not as the cultural exchange participants they are and were intended to be since the inception of this program under the Fulbright Act of 1961.
Growing up in a middle class family in a small town in Connecticut, casual international travel wasn’t an option for my family or the families of my friends. Yet I always possessed a strong fascination with other countries and their cultures and languages. As soon as my school’s curriculum offered foreign languages in grade 7, I jumped at the chance to learn Spanish. By the following school year, I was enrolled in Spanish and German classes simultaneously. When I began looking at colleges to attend, my primary focus was colleges with a strong language program. I ended up at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, which has since been repeatedly voted one of the top 10 schools in the US for foreign language and study abroad.
During these same years in high school and college, I spent my summers at Hartford County 4-H camp in Marlborough, CT. Camp Director for 40 years (now director emeritus), Elsie, always believed in hiring a handful of international staff each summer to enable campers to learn more about the world outside of Connecticut and the USA. Over the course of my years at this camp, I made friends from Russia, Slovakia, England, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Scotland and many other countries. My parents always invited these staff to come to our home for a meal on nights off to experience ‘American culture’. I spent time learning from these staff about their countries, while showing them around my state. I developed friendships that still exist today and visit these friends on my regular international travels. A true blessing!
In my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Bremen, Germany and fell in love with Europe. I received a Fulbright scholarship after graduation from Dickinson College to return and teach English in Germany in a place called Halle in the former ‘Eastern Germany’. In addition to English, I also taught the students about ‘American culture’. Many of the students were as equally naive to the world outside of Germany as I had been as a child growing up in Connecticut. To this day, I still communicate with my students and their families.
After my Fulbright year, I received a call from a Swedish friend who had worked at Hartford County 4-H camp with me. He was now working for CCUSA (the company which had sponsored his J1 visa to work at summer camp). He let me know about a position available with the company in Dublin, Ireland, where I was living at the time. I applied for the job and was successful. The person who hired me indicated that my success over the other candidates was due to the fact that during my int
erview I was visibly passionate about helping others experience foreign exchange and thus he knew I was right for the job.
Fifteen years later and I am still, passionately, working for CCUSA to provide a summer camp experience for international staff and to give American children and their families a chance to learn more about the world as well. I have travelled extensively promoting this wonderful program on television, radio and informational meetings; conducted interviews and job fairs on various continents and visited program participants at their camps to see first-hand the wonderful experiences they are having. One of my posts took me to England, where I met a handsome man who told me in conversation that he had spent a summer on a cultural exchange program working at camp in the USA and it had been the best summer of his life. I was so impressed by this and that handsome man is now my husband!
To think that immigration reform could hinder the cultural exchange industry and what we work towards each day is heartbreaking. In the current world climate, embracing programs that enable us to learn about and interact first-hand with other cultures is vital to ensuring that our future generations to live a more peaceful existence. We ask that you please take into account the tens of thousands of international staff and even more American children and families that have been positively impacted by these programs and help us to ensure that this is able to continue.