It's ironic that I've spent this fall encouraging Americans to advocate for the White House not to drastically reduce or eliminate J-1 visas for camp cultural exchange programs while also keynoting at the 3rd China Camp Education Conference (CCEC) and representing ACA at the 11th International Camping Congress (ICC). Camp cultural exchange has been a key component of American diplomacy and deeply enriching summer camp experiences for decades. The J-1 exchange visitor program was introduced under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961). The purpose of the Act is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange. I personally had amazing international cabin counselors when I was a camper in the 70s, and today have hundreds of camp friends around the world as a result of all the international camp cultural exchange participants with whom I worked as staff over the years. Camp is a
unique developmental environment that weaves global citizenship with critical-thinking skills, leadership, and character development. The gifts of culture that our international visitors bring are critical because their presence teaches our children cultural empathy and understanding — an opportunity to see themselves in others, recognize the beauty in differences, and unite in the spirit that we share across the globe.
In April 2017, President Trump signed the Buy American and Hire American (BAHA) Executive Order, and we have learned that the White House implementation of the BAHA may drastically reduce or eliminate five J-1 visa categories including the Camp Counselor category and camp Summer Work Travel. Should these J-1 visa cultural exchange opportunities be reduced or eliminated, many camp programs will be forced to close or substantially downsize, leaving parents and campers without the ability to return to their beloved and vital camp programs. And reduction or elimination of these J-1 programs could result in the loss of thousands of American jobs.
At the recent CCEC and ICC, it was easy to see how J-1 camp cultural exchange opportunities in the US continue to foster the growth of the field of camp in other countries. In just three years, the CCEC has grown from 150 attendees in its first year to over 1,000 attendees this year, with most being young social entrepreneurs planning to start a camp program this year. I learned from the Chinese government officials how much they value and support camp as an educational vehicle. They understand and appreciate how American camp cultural exchange is positively influencing the growth in China camps and are encouraging these opportunities. At the CCEC, representatives of other countries' camp movements also shared their findings on the benefits of camp experiences in addressing their own educational challenges and how international camp cultural exchange programs with the US continue to support their success.
At the 11th International Camping Congress, camp professionals from numerous countries gathered to celebrate the impact of excellent camp experiences in creating cultural understanding around the world and also the 30th anniversary of the International Camping Fellowship, a global camp organization devoted to fostering international camp cultural exchange in all forms. Throughout the Congress, I met many individuals from different countries who were introduced to international camp cultural exchange through the US J-1 Visa camp counselor and camp summer work travel programs when they were university students. Today those experiences also inspire their professional work to create similar camp cultural exchange programs in their own countries, offering American students the opportunity to experience camp in a different country.
At the request of the US Department of State, ACA has been collecting J-1 visa stories — testimonials about the exceptional impact of camp cultural exchange. The words of one American camp parent and former cultural exchange participant sums it up best: "The daily cultural exchange that occurs between international visitors and American campers and staff [at camp] is genuine and life-changing. 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."
These testimonials echo how international camp cultural exchange has had far reaching benefits on the lives of generations of American youth and their life-long friendships around the world. We must ensure that these opportunities continue to grow and flourish. 'If you feel strongly about this issue, please contact your elected officials in Congress (usa.gov/elected-officials/).