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by Michael McCarry

As autumn arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, one of the U.S. State Department’s least heralded but most effective exchange programs has wrapped up another successful summer.

Roughly 100,000 international students, participants in the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, have returned home to resume their studies after a summer-long cross-cultural adventure in the United States.

SWT permits international students to work in the U.S. during their university summer breaks, allowing them to earn money to cover their program, travel, and living costs. The students boost the American economy by providing needed seasonal staffing in resort areas, and in turn, get a first-hand experience of the United States. The program receives no funding from the U.S. government.

Many of these students are visiting the U.S. for the first time. Without SWT, most of these future leaders from around the world would never visit the U.S., given the high cost of American education or even a tourist visit.  Summer Work Travel is the State Department’s largest exchange program, and the only one specifically designed for undergraduates.

Origins and Intent

The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) began administering the Summer Work Travel program in 1965, under its Fulbright-Hays Act authority to foster mutual understanding through a varied menu of exchanges. Following a critical 1990 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, which argued that the Exchange Visitor (J-1) visa was being misused for programs with a work component, former Senator William Fulbright clarified the legislative intent in a 1991 letter to Senator Claiborne Pell, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Fulbright wrote, “…the Fulbright-Hays legislation was intended to cover a broad spectrum of educational and cultural activities. The Summer Work Travel program is an excellent example of the activities authorized by the ‘other educational activities’ provision…of the Act.”

Fulbright continued: “Surely USIA must recognize that work can indeed be an important and educational cross cultural experience. Indeed it may be more influential in forming attitudes and impressions of American life than a purely academic experience.”

Participation Trends

Historically, participation in the program has roughly tracked global headlines. In its early years, the program remained relatively small, populated by Western European students seeking a summer adventure in the U.S. But when new democracies emerged in Central Europe after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, participation from that region grew rapidly. By the early 2000’s, Poland became the leading sending country in world, annually topping 20,000 participants.

The U.S. embassy in Warsaw commented at length on this phenomenon in a 2003 cable:

“Particularly in the context of scarce resources [for funded exchanges], the Exchange Visitor programs – especially Summer Work Travel – offer a cost-effective way to bring thousands of young Poles to the U.S. for substantive experiences that are almost invariably positive, and allow us to reach a much broader and younger public than we could ever realistically aspire to through our federally funded programs. Our official programs and these programs are by no means interchangeable, but we see them as playing important complementary roles in our public diplomacy in Poland.”

The embassy concluded, “Sending such a large cohort of students to the U.S. annually builds a reservoir of good will that will support a strong bilateral relationship for decades as these young Poles move into leadership positions throughout society. Moreover, by helping them sharpen their skills, the program will help facilitate their success in a very competitive Polish job market. In a very competitive economy with persistent unemployment, university graduates find it difficult to land a good entry-level job without facility in a foreign language, and English is usually the most desirable choice.”

When Poland joined the European Union and $50 flights to London and Dublin became available in Warsaw, an English language work experience became more readily accessible to Polish students. Participation in SWT declined, a pattern repeated, less dramatically, in most of Central Europe.

Central European numbers were quickly replaced by swelling demand for SWT experiences in Russia and other former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine. And as those numbers have leveled off, we have seen program growth in newly emerging actors, such as China, Turkey, Brazil, and Thailand.

Regulatory Issues

The rapid expansion of the program, especially in Russia and Ukraine, exposed weaknesses in the program’s regulatory regime. This prompted an internal Department of State review of the SWT program, focused primarily on Russia and the former Soviet republics, which led to a set of regulatory changes for those countries known as ‘the Pilot Program.’ These changes included stricter vetting of jobs to be occupied by SWT participants and more frequent monitoring by American sponsor organizations.

The 2011 ‘strike’ by SWT students who complained about working conditions in a warehouse in Hershey, Pennsylvania, drew more critical attention to SWT. The State Department moved relatively quickly to cap the program at its then-current level over slightly more than 100,000 participants, to place a moratorium on designating new sponsors, and to publish new regulations in 2011 and 2012 that used the Pilot Program provisions as a basis. The new rules, applicable worldwide, also expanded the list of prohibited jobs (those judged dangerous or otherwise inappropriate for students), required that all jobs be seasonal, mandated that most students (students from visa waiver countries excepted) have a confirmed job placement before arrival, and expanded expectations for organized cultural activities for participants.

Those regulatory changes emerged from an intensive dialogue among the Department, U.S. embassies, and the U.S. sponsor community represented by the Alliance for International Exchange. Another proposed rule, published in 2017, is likely to be finalized soon. After a fairly substantial period under the new 2011 and 2012 rules, it’s fair to say that the State Department and the U.S. exchange community share the view that the SWT program is more effective than it has ever been, and better able to deliver on its mission of meaningful cultural exchange.

Student experiences

In recent travels, I’ve met Summer Work Travel students who were clearly enjoying the opportunity to live and work in the United States during the summer, getting to know Americans in ways that have influenced their understanding of the country.

Dorde, a philosophy student from Serbia who hopes to be a filmmaker, says, “I’m most amazed by everyday things, like the architecture, which is so different from Europe. “Being here has changed me a lot,” he continued. “I’m a lot more independent. Cultural exchanges like this really enrich your life.”

One student, who asked not to be identified, found another lesson in the American experience. “Your country works really well. In my country, if you want some sort of permission or certification from the government, it takes a very long time, “ the student said. “If you have a friend or relative who knows the right clerk, it can speed things up. Sometimes a bottle of whiskey helps.

“When I applied here for my Social Security card, I applied one day and got my card in the mail the next week,” the student reported, still with a discernible touch of disbelief.

Valery, a Ukrainian student who worked at a sandwich shop in Branson, Missouri, describes her takeaway from the experience: “I can say that Americans are the great nation. They are all different — in their accents, location, country of origin, religion, color of the skin. But they are united in this diversity.“

Local impact

In addition to learning about the U.S., SWT students support American businesses in resort areas with insufficient supplies of high season workers.

A striking example of labor need is Branson, one of the leading tourist destinations in or around the Ozarks. Branson draws visitors to southwest Missouri with gorgeous scenery, fishing, golf, and a long menu of musical shows. Branson has a population of 11,000, and on an average summer day, attracts 75,000 visitors.

When I asked Branson Mayor Karen Best where the town would be without the Summer Work Travel program, she replied succinctly, “We’d be in trouble.”

Asked for an example, she gestured toward one of her office windows. “There’s a hotel over there that I know would need to close one of its buildings in the summer without the Summer Work Travel students. And without a doubt, that would have a negative impact on the hotel and its American workers.”

Mayor Best added, “I know there are those who say these students are taking jobs from Americans. That’s not the case at all. Even with the students, we still have vacancies, and we’re still hiring.”

Shawn Clark, Employment Manager at Mohonk Mountain House, a resort in the Hudson River valley, counts on SWT students. “American students aren’t much interested in seasonal work,” Clark said. “SWT students represent only about 10 per cent of our summer work force, but they are absolutely essential.

“We never stop hiring,” he said. “We post jobs all year round. In mid-August, long after the SWT students arrived, we were trying to fill 78 vacancies.”

Steve Lavery, President of High Sierra Pools in Arlington, Virginia, says the SWT program is essential to his business that serves pools in neighborhoods and at apartment buildings. “For our purposes, Northern Virginia has a ‘shortage’ of teenagers,” he told me. “Local teenagers used to staff these pools, but now most of them are looking for internships, taking academic enrichment courses, or traveling. Pools couldn’t stay open and safe without SWT students.”

People-to-people connections

Based on my recent conversations with SWT participants, one of their strongest impressions is of the American people:

  • “Americans have such kind, open personalities. They are always happy to help.”
  • “People here are so supportive. They make you feel like part of their family.”
  • “America is so multi-cultural. You can meet people from 7 different countries in one day. And everyone manages to live together. It’s a lesson for the whole world.”

The vast majority of SWT students take home a very positive view of the United States.   And that’s not just an impression. A 2017 study by EurekaFacts, commissioned by the Alliance for International Exchange, includes these findings:

  • 91 per cent of program participants say cultural exchange is their primary purpose for visiting the U.S.
  • 90.9 per cent are either satisfied or very satisfied with their experience.
  • 98 per cent of participants recommended the program to their friends.
  • 91 per cent say they gained a better understanding of American culture during the program.
  • 94 per cent report making friends with Americans.

Summer Work Travel students return home and share their stories with their families, neighbors, friends, and classmates. And, no accident, another 100,000 students will show up next summer, many persuaded by the tales of their friends’ summer adventures.

The Summer Work Travel program transforms thousands of authentic experiences – from simple conversations to Grand Canyon road trips – into powerful, ongoing diplomacy. It makes lasting friends for the United States, and in part through the stories of its alumni, regenerates itself annually. By filling a crucial seasonal need, it supports American businesses and American workers. And it does all that without any federal funding.

A few years ago, the Foreign Service Institute invited me to speak to a group of experienced consular officers about the whole range of State Department exchange programs.

When it came time for questions, one of the officers expressed skepticism about the Summer Work Travel program, arguing that it was just a work program, rather than a true exchange.

At the time one of my sons was a college student who spoke pretty good Spanish and aspired to improve it. So my response to this officer was more personal than policy: “If my son had the opportunity to spend a summer in Argentina, was able to support himself through legal work with a sponsor organization backstopping him, learned to navigate a foreign culture on his own and significantly improved his Spanish, I’d judge that to be a pretty successful summer.”

Unfortunately, very few countries offer Americans such an opportunity.

Through the collaboration of the State Department and the American entities and communities that host, support, and sponsor SWT students, the U.S. has created something rare and underappreciated: a program in which nearly everybody wins, every summer.


Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry, a former USIA Foreign Service Officer and Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange, serves as senior advisor to Cenet, a nonprofit exchange organization based in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

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