As published in the Huffington Post on August 3, 2016
Monday, August 1st, was “J Day,” during which international students and other exchange visitors fan out across the United States to engage in community service and celebrate American culture. This celebration comes right after the recent party conventions where divergent philosophies on immigration and other global issues were on display. Those differences could over time negatively impact the general public’s views of international exchange programs. That would be a shame because such programs support our national security and strengthen our economy by increasing mutual understanding among peoples.
There are twenty-eight J Day events planned nationwide in over seventeen states. Service projects include organizing food and shoe drives, preparing care packages for police officers in Orlando, and cleaning up a shoreline in Alaska.
J Day participants are among the nearly 300,000 international exchange visitors that come to the United States every year under the Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program. Many come from countries of key strategic interest to the United States, such as Brazil, China, and India. These international visitors participate in a wide-range of academic, cultural, sports, professional, and work-based exchanges. While here, they learn about American culture and develop close personal ties that last a lifetime.
For more than a half century, international exchange participants have had a significant positive impact in the U.S. and abroad. Over one million alumni of federally-funded programs completed over 1.6 million hours of community service. Seventy-seven became Nobel Prize winners. Seventy-four members of the current U.S. Congress, twelve ambassadors to the United Nations, and 395 current or former heads of foreign governments are also exchange alumni. These programs also strengthen our economy. For example, international students studying at American universities and colleges alone contributed $30.5 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014-2015.
By exposing people to different cultures and diverse perspectives, international exchanges are an essential tool in creating friendships and furthering diplomacy. When we welcome international visitors, we foster positive views of the United States. For example, 97 percent of exchange students from Muslim-majority countries said that their year in the U.S. gave them a deep, nuanced, and more favorable views of American people and culture.
Despite all this, in May 2016 a Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of American voters remain wary of global involvement. Presidential candidates in both parties have seized on this wariness. A number of the campaigns over the past year steered away from internationalism, emphasizing instead the twin threats of terrorism and trade. This emphasis on external threats has led some to paint with a broad brush whole groups of people abroad as potentially dangerous.
Thankfully, Americans who interact with international exchange visitors are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about these programs. By connecting Americans and international visitors through service projects and celebration events, J Day meets local community needs while advancing our national interests around the globe