The Importance of the J1 Visa: To Camps, To America & To The World

Earlier this week Camp Friendship staff, along with summer camp staff everywhere, received an email which struck very close to us all. The email was in regards to the J1 work visa, specifically the Summer Work Travel (SWT) Program and the recent discussions to potentially cancel this program as a result of the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order signed by the President in April of this year.

For those of you who know Camp Friendship, you will know that we welcome staff from all over the world to enhance our program. In fact, Camp Friendship was founded on the notion of bringing children together from all over the world and providing them a safe space to gather in peace. Our international staff only strengthen this mission with the experiences they bring to share with our campers. Everyday we learn from one another and that is what makes us great. We proudly thrive on diversity of all kinds.

For those of you who don’t know Camp Friendship but know the camping industry, you will know the profound effect of international staff members.

Welcoming staff from around the world doesn’t take away opportunities from American staff, but rather helps with a shortage of seasonal staff and in the process opens up opportunities to all involved. To borrow from the language of the American Camp Association’s letter in support of the SWT program, “there is a shortage of available qualified seasonal workers in America, especially in rural areas like where most camps are located. Camps everywhere must compete with local businesses, internships, and summer educational programs in order to find staff willing to work during the short camp season.” Two thirds of overnight camps hire international staff, making up 10.9% of their staff, a percentage that increases to 19.7% for non-profit independent camps.

Beyond being essential to the operation of Camp Friendship and many other camps like ours, international staff give young people the chance to learn hands-on about different cultures. Research shows that youth camps improve developmental and academic outcomes, promote wellness and provide valuable employment experiences. The greatest economic impact of youth camps (besides almost $3.2 billion of which $1.1 billion is paid in local, state and federal income tax) may be their contribution to the development of human capital… development that is improved by international staff.

For me, the idea of losing the J1 program is hard to come to terms with on a personal level as I am a young person who has greatly benefited from the program. The first question I asked myself when I heard the news was, where would I be today without the J1 visa? The second… Who would I be today without the J1 visa? I can honestly say, without a doubt, I would not be the same person. I am who I am because of the experiences the J1 visa gave me, the people it allowed me to meet and the fears it helped me to overcome.

I am now fortunate enough to be working full-time at Camp Friendship on an extended J1 visa. This summer was the first time I was involved in the hiring of our brilliant staff members and I’ve been able to see first-hand the impact that working at a summer camp has on all our staff. I saw the transition from their first interview until their final day at camp, not just with our international staff but also our American staff. I saw friendships formed. I overheard conversations (and debates) on every topic under the sun: food, sport teams, school systems, the differences in how they would spend their free time and everything in between. I heard travel plans being made and watched international communities grow. To think of these opportunities being taken away from campers and staff alike is heartbreaking.

This summer, I also saw first-hand the impact of this particular international exchange program on our campers. Each and every year I see thousands of young people experience the magic of summer camp and grow, but this year I definitely noticed how much of an impact our international presence had, on our American and international children.

I noticed our campers really engaging and wanting to learn more about different cultures. I watched as staff would take the time to help campers understand why differences make us special and why they should be celebrated. I got to see (in the short space of 1 week) a camper’s ambitions change and their outlook on life develop. Campers developed a desire to travel the world to meet up with camp friends, to learn more, and to grow. This summer at Camp Friendship it didn’t at all matter where you were from, and it mattered immensely at the same time.

How YOU can help

As a part of our camp and global community, we ask you to join us in support of this cause:

Share. Share your stories of the positive impact our international staff have made, whether you were an international staff member yourself or whether you simply idolized your international counselors as a camper.

Write. Write to your representatives. The American Camp Association has pre-written a letter that is easy to sign electronically and send.

Call. Call your representatives, tell them how much you value the SWT Program and share your personal positive experiences that you wouldn’t have had if this program didn’t exist.

The legacy we leave with our campers and young people is what truly matters. Opening them up to the world and teaching them love, diversity and understanding matters. At Camp Friendship we will always strive to do what matters. We will always put your child first and do what is best for them, which is why we’re fighting this fight and we’re fighting it hard.