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Foreign exchange programmes to the US under the microscope

A NON-PROFIT organisation in the United States that sponsors foreign exchange students recently raised concerns when it allegedly jeopardised the safety and privacy of a 17-year-old Slovak student named Roland Gomory.

A NON-PROFIT organisation in the United States that sponsors foreign exchange students recently raised concerns when it allegedly jeopardised the safety and privacy of a 17-year-old Slovak student named Roland Gomory.

The organisation quickly launched an internal investigation, which concluded that an employee had violated policy and demonstrated a lapse of judgment, the group’s president said, but Gomory - currently studying in Galveston, Texas - was never put at significant risk, he added.

Still, the question remains why this happened, and whether it could happen again.

A close call

Gomory is sponsored by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), a non-profit organisation based in Portland, Maine that has been organising international study and foreign exchange programmes since 1947. It currently supervises about 50,000 programme participants each year.

On December 3, The Slovak Spectator was informed by the Committee for the Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES), a California-based watchdog agency, that an advertisement about Gomory had been posted on the popular Craigslist online classifieds website on November 19 by a CIEE employee.

The ad, a copy of which was provided by the CSFES, was entitled “Boy Who Loves Fashion Needs a Host Family” and did not include Gomory’s name. It described him as “a foreign exchange student from Slovakia who comes from a wealthy family, so he LOVES to go shopping for clothes.”

More troublingly, the advertisement included an offer to send Gomory’s personal profile upon request, as well as a sentence that could easily be misinterpreted: “He is very compliant and will do anything you ask.”

According to the CSFES, it decided to test CIEE’s screening process by promptly requesting Gomory’s profile from the e-mail address listed on the ad, writing only “When you get a moment, might you send me the student from Slovakia’s profile”. Within five minutes, it received a 25-page .PDF file containing a mountain of sensitive personal data, including Gomory’s name, birth date, several pictures and copies of his visa to the United States.

CIEE‘s internal investigation resulted in the dismissal of the employee responsible for the ad.

“It was an error that will not be allowed to be repeated,” Stevan Trooboff, CIEE’s President and CEO, told The Slovak Spectator.

Oversight through the J visa programme

Gomory, like thousands of foreigners each year, was in the United States as part of the Exchange Visitor Programme. Established in 1961 by the provisions of the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act, the programme is comprised of 15 exchange categories (one of which is for high school students) that qualify visitors for a J visa, allowing them to stay in the US for varying lengths of time.

But before receiving a J visa, an applicant must be sponsored by one of the 1,500 entities designated by the US Department of State to conduct exchange programmes. These entities include colleges and universities, government agencies, non-profit and private sector organisations.

“To become a sponsor, the organisations must meet a number of specific regulatory requirements for designation as set forth in (federal law),” Catherine L. Stearns, spokesperson for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the Department of State, told The Slovak Spectator. “In addition, they must have a minimum of one year experience in international exchange, and must demonstrate the financial solvency necessary to administer a programme.”

Students are matched with sponsors through an agent, often their school or a travel agency in their home country.

Federal law requires that prior to arriving in the US, sponsors must provide students with the name of the school they will attend, the name and contact information of the family that will host them and information about the community where they will live, Stearns said. She also said the State Department investigates allegations of mistreatment or error when they receive a complaint.

“The Department investigates any concern brought to our attention. Complaints can come from a variety of sources: a student, school, parent, host family, etc.”

Currently, there are no rules about using the internet to find host families.

“The Department regulations do not specifically address how host families are to be identified,” Stearns said. “However, given recent concerns raised regarding the means by which sponsors are locating host families, the Department is reviewing this matter,” she said.

CIEE and InterExchange

CIEE limits the age of its participants to just over 18 - 15 to 18.5, to be exact - which makes screening host families especially important.

“There is a complex procedure for screening including a home interview, criminal background checks and personal references checked by local staff,” Trooboff from CIEE told the Spectator. “Many of the families who host participants are personally known by our local coordinators who are charged with finding placements.”

If the exchange students need assistance during their stay in America, there is a substantial safety net, Trooboff said.

“Each local coordinator files a monthly report on each student; how they’re doing, etc., which means they are in regular contact with the student,” he said. “We also check in with schools and run a 24/7 help line that every student is reminded about in orientation and in all written materials.

“Students who need help get help,” he added. “We are proactive, not just reactive.”

Peter Fillo, a 24-year-old computer science student who went to Los Angeles in 2005 as part of the Work and Travel Programme, another category in the Exchange Visitor Programme, had a pleasant experience with his sponsor, InterExchange.

Because Filo was older than 18.5, he was given the option of finding accommodation and employment himself. During his three months in the US, his sponsor never checked on his status, but did provide quick and effective assistance when he needed it.

“They were very nice, helpful and polite,” he told the Spectator.

The role of parents

Both CIEE and the State Department stress the need for parents to stay involved in their child’s foreign exchange experience.

“Students and parents should contact the host family to make an introduction,” Stearns from the State Department said. “That’s why they are provided with that information.”

“All parents worry about their children, and they should,” Trooboff from CIEE said. “However, by working with their agents in the home country, picking one that has a good partner in the US and keeping in touch their child and host family, they too can be part of the process and help assure their children’s welfare. We certainly understand their concerns.”

For more information on CIEE, visit www.ciee.org. For InterExchange, visit www.interexchange.org.

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