Learning about how people live in other places provides an opportunity for people to develop an understanding of life in other cultures. Participating in a cultural exchange program allows participants to
- Experience day-to-day life as a member of another culture
- Gain a deeper understanding of other cultures’ strengths and challenges
- Realize their own potential for taking risks and tackling new situations
- Inspire change at a global level through increased personal relationships
The United States demonstrates its recognition of the immense value of participating in cultural exchange with its Exchange Visitor program, which provides foreign nationals the opportunity to participate in educational and cultural programs in the U.S.
Television, books, and movies are a start when it comes to learning about other cultures, but there is no comparison for the real-life experience of discovering what it means to exist in another way of life. When forces in the world so often seem to be working to divide people, the true purpose of connecting with people unlike you is clear — to realize that perhaps people are not so unlike after all.
What is the J-1 visa program?
The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program provides a number of opportunities for international candidates who want to travel and gain experience in the U.S. and then share their experiences when they return home. The variety of programs offered allow visitors to teach, study, conduct research, demonstrate special skills, or even receive on-the-job training. The duration of the exchange program varies from a few weeks to several years depending on the category of the exchange visitor.
- Au pair
- Camp counselor
- College/university students
- Government visitor
- International Department of State visitor
- Research scholar
- Short-term scholar
- Secondary school student
- Summer work travel
According to the Department of State, each year the J-1 program provides opportunities for “around 300,000 foreign visitors from 200 countries and territories per year to experience U.S. society and culture and engage with Americans.” In some cases, the spouses and unmarried children under 21 of exchange visitors may apply for a visa under the J-2 designation to accompany the J-1 participant to the U.S.
Who qualifies for the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program?
Unlike many other visa classifications, the J program requires foreign nationals who want to come to the U.S. to apply for the Exchange Visitor program through a designated sponsor rather than directly with the U.S. government. The requirements for each category of exchange visitor vary, but all J-1 participants must
- Meet the English language requirement
- Show proof of medical insurance
All aspects of the exchange program, including the screening and selecting of participants and supporting participants throughout their stay, are managed by State Department-designated sponsors.
What is the role of J-1 program sponsors?
The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program is managed by program sponsors, who are the main point of contact for both exchange visitors and hosts or employers of visitors. These third-party sponsors must apply and be approved by the State Department to work with participants, and they must be designated as approved for certain countries and in specific categories. These sponsors provide support to agencies and employers who want to participate in the J-1 cultural exchange program but are not in a position to — or interested in — trying to become a sponsor themselves.
Those wishing to benefit from including J-1 visitors on their teams generally can rest assured that they are in good hands. In order to be a qualified sponsor, the rigorous application process must detail the proposed program, including explanations of its
- Category of participation. The organization applying for designation must specify which category or categories they intend to sponsor — for example, a J-1 program for educators is just one of the 15 categories available — as well as the duties or responsibilities of the role that the visitor will take on.
- Selection and support of participants. Applicants must explain how they intend to select exchange visitors, what program fees they will charge visitors and a fee collection schedule, how their program will be funded, how participants will access the required health insurance, and how they will prepare and onboard participants before and after their arrival in the U.S.
- Program purpose and objectives. Each sponsoring program must explain the learning objectives of each role category, as well as how their program will promote a cultural exchange between people in the U.S. and other countries.
- Proposed cross-cultural activities. The application must include a planning outline of cross-cultural activities for each category selected, which might include educational, athletic, or social activities.
- Supervision, evaluation, and monitoring process. Selecting applicants and coordinating arrival in the U.S. is only one part of a sponsor’s job. Throughout the duration of a visitor’s stay, sponsors are responsible for staying in touch with visitors as well as being available to J-1 participants or employers/hosts in case of emergency.
In addition to the program specifics, sponsors must also show they have previous experience in the field of international exchanges and that they can meet the financial requirements of the program. Becoming an approved sponsor can take up to several years, depending on the preparedness of the organization and the category of visitor. Once sponsors are approved, they will be added to the State Department’s list and are free to advertise themselves as a sponsor.
What is the application and approval process like for J-1 participants?
When potential exchange visitors decide they are interested in participating in the exchange program, they will find a program run by a designated, approved sponsor.
The applicant will apply to the program and pay any necessary fees. In order to demonstrate qualifications for the specific program, the potential visitor will need to submit proof that they meet the qualifications. For example, let’s say a Spanish-speaking foreign national is applying to be a bilingual teacher in Texas. They will first need to meet the Department of State’s requirements for a visiting teacher:
- Equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree in either education or the relevant subject matter
- Has or will have completed an advanced degree within 12 months of the J-1 application
- Equivalent of two years of full-time teaching experience
- Employed as a teacher at the time of application for the program or has at least two years of full-time teaching experience within the past eight years
- Proficient in English (like all J-1 candidates)
The sponsoring program is responsible for gathering the required documentation to prove the teacher meets the qualifications set by the State Department and by the program. This proof may come in the form of
- Educational transcripts
- Work history
- Reference letters
Once a program accepts a candidate, a form called a DS-2019 will be submitted through the Student & Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). After the paperwork is submitted, the candidate must schedule an appointment with the U.S. Embassy or consular office.
What is the chance of being approved for the J-1 visa program?
Like many visa programs, paperwork errors and insufficient documentation increase the risk of being denied for the Exchange Visitor Program.
- Improper insurance: The Department of State requires visitors to have medical benefits of at least $100,000, insurance for remains transportation in the event of death in the amount of $25,000, medical evacuation insurance of at least $50,000, and a deductible of no more than $500 per accident or illness.
- Inadequate financial proof: Some visitors, especially if they are not receiving a salary or other compensation while in the program, may need to demonstrate they are able to fund their stay in the U.S.
- Insufficient intent to return: Not only do some J-1 programs have a two-year home residency requirement, but all require the visitor to prove they intend to return to their country. Being unprepared to demonstrate permanent and significant ties to one’s home country — especially at the consular interview — can lead to a denial.
- Inadmissible qualifications: Even if a candidate is qualified for the program, if they do not get the correct documentation of those qualifications, they will not be admitted to the program.
An unexpected denial of a candidate can lead to unfortunate consequences for hosts and employers, who may be counting on the knowledge and perspective an exchange visitor can bring to their organization. Not only are exchange visitors an opportunity for other countries to experience all the U.S. has to offer, but they bring immense value through their activities in the U.S. as well. Consider again the role of a visiting bilingual educator. These valuable exchange visitors can support the learning environment by
- Supporting other teachers in understanding the students’ cultural context
- Providing academic support to students in their home language
- Assessing students’ content knowledge in their home language
- Bridging social and cultural gaps between English learners’ families and school staff
- Planning culturally competent activities and learning opportunities at the campus and district level
- Offering valuable opportunities for second-language acquisition for native English-speaking students
In 2019 alone, Texas saw 3,167 exchange visitor participants across all categories, to include 659 secondary students and 48 teachers. However, the J-1 application process can be stressful for hosts and employers as well as candidates seeking to spend time in the U.S. For more information about the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program or guidance on applying, contact Farmer Law today.