As published on the StudyTravel Magazine of EnglishUSA on December 5, 2018.
This week, we interview Ilir Zherka of the Alliance for International Exchange about the group’s activities, useful resources for agents, and how it marked its 25th anniversary.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about the Alliance for International Exchange?
The Alliance for International Exchange serves as the only collective public policy voice of the exchange community, by promoting the growth and impact of exchange programs and the effectiveness of its members, by engaging in advocacy, providing member development opportunities, and by building public awareness of the power of exchange.
What has the Alliance been up to in the last year?
In the last year, the Alliance has done a lot in terms of advocacy, research, and communications.
The Alliance introduced its first-ever Exchange Week in the District, which enables our members and other stakeholders to reinforce the impact of exchange programs at the state and district levels.
We engaged in a wide-range of policy issues by: sharing our views regarding negative changes to the definition of “unlawful presence;” submitting a comment letter on an increase in SEVP fees; engaging with ECA and Consular Affairs on visa denials; opposing restrictions on recruiting and program fees in Romania; and submitting an Amicus Brief to the First Circuit Court in support of the Au Pair program.
We also commissioned and released a major, comprehensive report on the Intern and Trainee programs by EurekaFacts.
We reported last year about reported proposed cuts to exchange programs and the feared impact of these. Have those fears subsided? Was is the current state of play?
Since the proposed cuts were reported last year, we facilitated bipartisan congressional support for privately-funded exchange programs. While the threat seems to have receded thus far, we are aware that there is attention being paid by some to these programs with an eye toward greater restrictions and cuts. We are, therefore, continuing our intensified educational and advocacy efforts, and we suggest others do the same.
What are the benefits to international students and to the US itself of exchange programs?
International students benefit the US in several different ways or areas. They support the U.S. national security because more than 200 countries and territories visit the U.S. from countries critical to U.S. foreign policy. International students also strengthen the U.S. economy. In fact, in the 2017-2018 academic year, international students contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy and supported over 455,000 jobs.
Our readership is predominantly comprised of agents and students recruitment companies, and of course, many of these are promoting J-1 programmes. Do you have any engagement with agents around the world, or any resources that might be useful for agencies?
We have several resources that might be useful for agencies on the “Impact and Resources” page of our website. On this page, we have gathered all the information on the benefits of exchange programs: such as, our Exchanges impact one-pager; state fact sheets with information by state; our Intern/Trainee and Summer Work Travel reports; and the latest numbers from Department of State. They might also benefit from reviewing our Advocacy page, which includes suggestions for engaging elected officials that should apply to their countries, too.
In terms of wider international student recruitment, the last couple of years have been challenging for educators in the US, particularly IEPs. Has that trend impacted on the exchange sector at all?
According to the Open Doors Report, new student enrollments fell by 6.6 per cent in 2017. This trend, however, started in 2015. That decline is certainly having an impact.
I gather you have recently market your 25th anniversary. How did you celebrate this?
Our 25th Anniversary Gala dinner hosted 256 attendees, including 105 Alliance members and supporters, 11 government officials, and five previous Alliance staff. It was truly an evening to remember.
What does the Alliance have planned for coming months?
There is a continuing need to educate policy makers and the general American public about the power of exchange programs to increase greater mutual understanding between peoples. We’ll be doing that through an upcoming report on the Camp Counselor program, visits to congressional offices in Washington, DC and locally, as well as other programs. People abroad can figure out how to get involved by subscribing to our Weekly Digest through our website.
Ilir Zherka is the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.