The Concordia Language Villages are known for their creation of authentic cultural experiences that provide villagers with the opportunity to learn about 15 different languages and cultures. The Language Villages are able to do this in part by bringing in international staff members. However, due to a recent review of the visa that allows international staff to come to America to participate in such programs known as the J-1 Camp Counselor Exchange Visa, staff members, villagers, and campers are worried the visa is under threat.
Christine Schulze, the Executive Director of the Concordia Languages Villages since 1989, said the J-1 Exchange Visa Program, which includes the Camp Counselor Exchange Visa, was established in 1961 under the Fulbright-Hays Act.
“It was established in order to effect exchange of both students and professionals having an opportunity to come to the United States for a short-term experience,” Schulze said. “We, Concordia Language Villages, have been a designated sponsor through the Department of State since 1975.”
Schulze said that each year, approximately 130 to 150 staff members from around 30 countries come to Concordia Language Villages to work as camp counselors under the J-1 Visa. For those who are given this visa, there is an obligation to return to their home country at the conclusion of the experience, making this a short-term opportunity rather than one of long-term immigration.
Recently, the J-1 Exchange Visa has come under review by the White House.
“What we understood was that an administrative group was established in the White House to look at the impact of the J-1 exchange visas, and particularly they identified five categories, one of which was the J-1 Camp Counselor,” Schulze said. “They were looking at whether or not it was a deterrent or a negative attribute of the Buy American, Hire American policy that President Trump has established.”
As the J-1 Camp Counselor Exchange Visa allows for international employees to work in the United States, some criticize it for taking away potential jobs for American citizens. The percentage of international staff members that are hired each year at the Concordia Language Villages, however, is only about 10 percent.
“It’s a small percentage, but it’s an important aspect of bringing contemporary cultural views, as well as what is life like abroad, into our program … and in turn giving these international staff a great opportunity to make friends and interact with people their own age here,” Schulze said.
Rachel Schaefer, a senior at Concordia College who has spent nine years as a villager and five years as a counselor at Concordia Language Villages, said that without that perspective, much of the cultural authenticity would be lost.
“There is only so much that people from the US can give the people coming to the camps,” Schaefer said. “A lot of us have gone abroad and had that experience, but they lived it for the full 18-20 years of their lives, so there is no way of comparing our cultural knowledge to what they bring to the program; that’s really invaluable.”
Kathryn Nicholson, also a senior at Concordia College, attended the French village as a camper throughout middle and high school and later return as a counselor. Nicholson said her experience at Concordia Language Villages was greatly enriched by international staff.
“International staff make a huge difference for CLV,” Nicholson said. “They play a huge part in making the camps what they are. Native speakers contributed so much to the immersion camp. They provide language and cultural skills that only native speakers would know.”
Schulze said that international staff also allow for important connections to be made between people from around the world.
“It’s an enhancement, it’s an enrichment, it’s an incredible way for the young people who are villagers to make friends with others from around the world, or simply be connected to them as camper to counselor. So we would be really saddened by the loss of this,” Schulze said.
Despite the recent review, there have already been policies that have made it more challenging for certain individuals to obtain the visa.
“It’s an extensive process, and it’s got a lot more difficult in the past years. They added an English interview component, which really deducted the amount of staff who got the visa,” Schaefer said. “The people at the embassies don’t understand that they aren’t coming here to speak English, they are coming here to speak their languages.”
In an effort to save the visa, Schulze has encouraged constituents, including current and past staff members as well as students and parents to make their voices heard in Washington by reaching out to their various congressional delegates.
“We had a tremendous response. We have never seen our base of constituents get as impassioned,” Schulze said. “We know it has made a difference. It has slowed down the decision making process.”
Schaefer said that even for students who have not participated in the Concordia Language Villages, this is still an important issue to care about.
“The association between the Language Villages and Concordia, although it’s not present in every student’s mind, is very strong,” Schaefer said. “They represent each other a lot. People know Concordia College because of the Language Villages, or people know the Language Villages because of the association with the college.”
Schulze said that this issue even goes beyond Concordia.
“If you don’t have that direct connection to the Language Villages, if you feel that international exchange is an important part of our nation’s approach to diplomacy … you should make your voice heard.”