Why Camp Cultural Exchange Is So Important!

A Testimonial by Tove

Please. Let's not take these opportunities to interact with the world away from deserving American youth and from the fine young adults who go to great lengths to come here for them. - Tove

May 2013

Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar:

Photo courtesy of Concordia Language Villages, MinnesotaAs someone who works in your state and as the village dean at the Norwegian Language Program of the Concordia Language Villages (CLV) — a Concordia College–sponsored program that utilizes international cultural exchange visitors as camp counselors and camp support staff — I write to urge you to eliminate the provisions in the Senate Immigration Bill (S.744) that would greatly diminish the value of the International Cultural Exchange program!

I am also writing as the daughter of Liv and Tor, Minnesota residents who emigrated from Norway.

Our family odyssey began when my father first came to the U.S. as an international camp counselor with the purpose of improving his English and developing a deeper understanding of the U.S. He spent his first summer at Camp Lookout outside of Frankfurt, Michigan. That proved to be a significant summer for my family.

The following summer, my mom and I joined Dad at Camp Lookout — I as a sixteen-month-old little girl playing in the sands of Lake Michigan beaches as my parents worked at the camp and got to know fellow counselors and children from all around the U.S. and other countries. My parents ended up studying in the U.S. and finally settling in Minnesota once and for all — both of them doing work that is about cross-cultural understanding. Camp Lookout was key to their positive start in the U.S. and to their lifelong contributions to the U.S. and beyond.

That trip to the U.S. in 1962 and my subsequent bicultural existence engendered a keen curiosity about the world in me. It ended up leading me to CLV. There, my Norwegian background became my ticket to interact with people from around the world nearly every summer at CLV camps in the north woods of Minnesota. I started as a ten-year-old, and in 1983, I became the dean (director) of the Norwegian Language Village.

As an educational psychologist, I have been able to bring my academic skills to CLV, where our mission is to prepare young people for responsible global citizenship. From that platform, I know that through the fifteen different languages we teach and all the cultures we represent and live, our work is incumbent upon contributions from both native speakers and non-native learners of those languages and cultures.

Native speakers offer something unique to the mix. The staff members who come to us from Cameroon, South Korea, Argentina, Scandinavia, Egypt, China, Russia, Burundi, and countless other countries from around the globe open the world to our young U.S. participants. Their work can only be approximated but never duplicated by their talented, non-native-speaking camp counseling peers.

Our non-native (i.e. U.S.) staff members make important contributions in their own ways. Still, they can never have the inside knowledge of what it is like to grow up in places like my home country, Norway, which consistently lands on the top of the charts as the best country to live in, or what it is like to grow up in places like Mexico, Brazil, or Russia, which line the bottom of those same charts. They can never know in exactly the same way what a lullaby feels like when sung by a grandparent called mormor, farsan, or babushka in a remote mountain cabin, on a Swedish farm, or in a small village in the Caucuses. They simply can never know, in exactly the same way, how the world looks through the eyes of a person who has lived another culture.

However, we can all start to understand what those things are like when people from different cultures meet. Creating that kind of meeting ground is the hallmark of CLV and of camps like Camp Lookout all around the U.S. where international staff are welcomed and treasured. The people these cultural ambassadors touch are the same people who will lead us into our future.

Please. Let's not take these opportunities to interact with the world away from deserving American youth and from the fine young adults who go to great lengths to come here for them. After such experiences, we all go home enriched. By living together, everyone has been given the opportunity to understand the world a little better, even through quiet lullabies in the darkness of night, and hone their repertoire of skills as global citizens who care about people everywhere and this world we all share.

I therefore urge you to eliminate the provisions that would classify camp staff and other exchange visitors as "workers," not as the cultural exchange participants they are — and were always intended to be since the inception of the program. This significant change would endanger the future of this important program and would also make the program more complex and expensive for camps — and ultimately greatly reduce the ability for us to provide cultural exchange to American children and international visitors.

Our camps, like so many others, provide an unforgettable cultural experience for our international visitors and our American staff and campers. International staff members return home with long-lasting friendships, an improved command of the English language, advanced leadership skills, and a deep understanding of American culture and customs. Their experience at our camps makes these young leaders — many of them from countries critical to U.S. foreign policy and national security — strong partners for U.S. interests as they, like my parents, move into careers in a variety of sectors.

I understand that this specific part of the Senate immigration bill comes in the "prevention of trafficking of persons" section, in which camp staff and other exchange visitors are defined as "workers." I ask that you urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to support exempting camp counselors, camp support staff, and all cultural exchange visitors from this section, ensuring that this legislation strengthens these important exchanges, rather than weakens them.

The daily cultural exchange that occurs between our international visitors and American campers and staff is genuine and life-changing for many. Our campers gain exposure to new countries, cultures, and languages. I have no doubt that this exposure will only benefit these young peoples' ability to thrive and compete in a globalized world, whatever they decide to do when they grow up.

Such as . . . Coming to study in the U.S. . . . Investing in a lifetime of work focused on cross-cultural understanding and good work. . . . Raising a daughter like me who took the torch and went on in her adult life to welcome other international staff, every summer, to our CLV programs with a deep appreciation for what this can and will mean for all involved.

I ask that you ensure immigration reform legislation protects this important national asset and does not diminish it.

Do it for the kids. They mean the world to us. Let's bring the world into their lives one great camp staff member at a time. For the kids. For all of us.




Photo courtesy of Concordia Language Villages, Minnesota


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