Leaving the nest – by working abroad

Exchange programmes open a new world to students, but also US employers.

Robin LernerRobin Lerner (Source: Courtesy of the US Embassy in Slovakia)

AMONG the biggest benefits of the US Visa Exchange Programme is that young people “leave the nest” and start taking care of themselves. 

They are forced to work, but also learn the language and the culture of the country they temporarily live in, says Robin Lerner, deputy assistant secretary for Private Sector Exchange at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

“They find themselves achieving something that they even didn’t know they have in them,” Lerner, who oversees the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, added.

The exchange programmes are familiar also to Slovaks as more than 3,000 exchange visitors from Slovakia went to the United States in 2014 via various categories. The majority of them (2,544) participated in the Summer Work Travel programme open to university students.

The Slovak Spectator and the Sme daily spoke to Lerner about the beginnings of the exchange programmes, the interest of Slovaks in them and also about the interest of Americans to study in Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS)/SME: Could you, please, describe the beginnings of the exchange programmes in the US? 

Robin Lerner (RL): What we call the Exchange Visitor Program began with the Fulbright Hays Act of 1963. There were some informal exchanges before but through the Fulbright Hays Act of 1963 the State Department was able to initiate formalised exchange programmes. The government had to enact the regulation and start to build the system to implement the programme. 

But it really began at universities. They have been conducting academic exchange for decades. A lot of what the Fulbright Hays Act sets up is exchanges for the purpose of mutual understanding and educational and academic exchange. 

TSS/SME: Was it hard to promote these programmes among young people?

RL: The Summer Work Travel, for example, was heavily promoted with Ireland. The mechanism for the youth of Ireland and other countries of Europe was to actually come over, work and see the United States and then go home. No brain drain. This programme is implemented by exchange organisations. What we at the State Department do is that we have an office that accepts applications from American organisations or entities. They do the application to be designated by the State Department as a sponsor of a J-1 exchange. Once they go through the process, they get the J-1 visa forms to bring people on. They pick the countries, find the partners and spread the word. In Slovakia we have about 10 agencies today whose job is to promote the programme across all the different categories. 

TSS/SME: Which programmes are the most popular with Slovak students? How has the structure of participants in this student exchange programme changed over the years?

RL: The highest interest from Slovakia is in the Summer Work Travel programme. The eligibility for that category has always been university students. They have to show proof that they are university students and they can come anytime during their studies, whether they are bachelors, masters, PhD students. Or during the last summer, after they finish their final exams. That has never changed. 

What they can or can’t do on the programme, that is different now. We’ve taken out certain jobs and created more clarity on the kinds of jobs that are appropriate for an exchange programme. Ultimately, this is a cultural exchange programme. It allows Slovak youth to get a more actual experience of US culture. We allow them to work for up to three months and then they can travel for a month. And during that whole time they are speaking English, making friends, living in the US and learning what that’s about. 

TSS/SME: What other programmes are popular, except for Summer Work Travel?

RL: The au-pair programme is popular here. It’s very different from the European au-pair programme. We also have sponsors who are responsible for that programme, for finding the host families. The host families have to be selected and must show that they are eligible. They have to have a certain size of the room for au-pair. The au-pairs are limited in how many hours they can work per week and they have to get time off. We regulate they can only do work for children. They can stay for up to two years. 

Also the high school exchanges are popular. There were 254 in high schools in 2015. It’s quite an expensive programme; the families are making investments to send their child. The other one is a Camp Counselor programme. 

TSS/SME: Is there any interest among American students to come for an exchange to Slovakia? What is their motivation to choose Slovakia?

RL: My first-hand experience is only in inbound programmes in the US. But an Open Doors report shows there is an increase in students studying here. We have a Fulbright programme which does allow for two-way research and we have a Fulbright Commission. They do a lot of work here to promote the programme, to find funding for other programmes. Americans don’t study abroad as much as other countries study abroad. It’s something we work on a lot: to try to increase the number of Americans going abroad.

TSS/SME: What have been the best moments for you since you have been appointed to the post?

RL: I came in 2012 and we actually needed to make some fixes to Summer Work Travel. We began major monitoring trips in the summer. I sent all my staff out, they went to every corner of the US to meet participants in the programme and ask them lots of questions about how the programme is going. We continue to do that. In 2014 I started a blog where I highlighted successful programmes. There are countless stories of how this programme has just changed people’s lives. But what I love about the J-1 is that young kids leave the nest. They find themselves achieving something that they even didn’t know they have in them. 

On the other side, I’ve seen the host employers who show you a map and the pins of where the students came from and all the presents they’ve gotten over the years from the students that came. They don’t even know how to pronounce the name of the country, but they still get emails. That has opened their world so much. 

TSS/SME: Do you also have any negative experiences?

RL: What really breaks my heart is when students come and they end up with a bad landlord or somebody who takes advantage on them. And they just don’t know that’s not the way they’re supposed to be treated. Also, it breaks my heart when young women come to the US and they just don’t bring their self-awareness with them. They need to understand that you need to be careful in the US. People who come on this programme have got to be safe and safety always comes first – that’s what I really want more than anything. They should always ask questions if something doesn’t feel right to them. They need to make sure that they have a contract that they feel good about before they go. 

TSS/SME: Would you personally join such a programme?

RL: I did one. I was a camp counsellor in Switzerland in college. I don’t even know if I made any money, but it was great. I spoke French, met people from all over the world, travelled all over Europe. It allowed me to be there the whole summer. 

TSS/SME: Slovakia often struggles to lure the talents to return from abroad back home. Based on the US experience, what would you recommend the country to change, so these people want to return?

RL: I am not specifically familiar with Slovakia enough, but I would just say a country that wants to attract people has to think about what the young people want and what they need. The J-1 programme works because young people want work experience, they want to learn English and they want to travel and have fun. I often find other governments want to do the same thing, but they need to create a visa for it. We created a structure around it, which makes it easy. I’m not sure how many people are looking to learn Slovak, but you have to look what else you have and build on it. 

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