Opinion Articles

Opinion pieces by Alliance staff.

As published in the Daily Progress on September 15, 2019.

At age 7, I attended summer camp for the first time. I don’t remember much else, but I vividly remember the camp counselors. They seemed impressively mature and exceedingly cool.

To add to their impact, my counselors were from all over the world. They taught us games and songs from their countries, treating us to their melodic accents.

As some of the first non-Americans I had ever met, they made a truly lasting impression on me. I went on to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh as an undergrad at the University of Virginia. I later conducted research in Wales and returned to Europe as an au pair in 2018.

I see this early experience at camp as one that has led to a lifelong pursuit of cross-cultural understanding.

Beyond the generic statements that international exchanges “broaden horizons,” what are the quantitative benefits of exchange?

International exchanges benefit the U.S. economy, strengthen national security and foster international diplomacy.

According to a 2016 public opinion poll, 90% of voters favor an education system that produces young leaders who understand other cultures and languages. In a nation that can sometimes appear rigidly divided, perhaps this is an issue that folks across the spectrum can agree on.

Though progress has been made in improving travel options, it remains a privilege to travel internationally. However, the U.S. Department of State runs exchange programs that temporarily bring international visitors to our hometowns.

While the news on immigration often focuses on those seeking permanent residence, the benefits of other types of opportunities for international partners living here temporarily are often overlooked. Participants can come to the U.S. as interns, camp counselors, au pairs, teachers or trainees.

One such program that brings cultural understanding to the U.S. is the very program that I was first exposed to as a child in Central Virginia, the U.S. Department of State’s Camp Counselor Program. This program educates young adults on American culture and allows participants to establish lasting bonds with Americans.

According to a recent report the independent research firm EurkaFacts, 76% of participants hold more positive views of American people and 71% hold more positive views of American culture after their stays. As they go on to become future leaders in their countries, the formative experience that participants undergo can have long-lasting, positive effects.

For instance, for the participants, one such positive effect is that they can practice their English with native speakers, giving them a further competitive edge in the global market.

But we benefit, too. Program participants inevitably come in contact with Americans during their short stays. Without any travel required on our part, we can learn about languages, traditions and etiquette from the visiting nationals. As hosts, when we open ourselves to the world, we gain skills that will prove valuable in almost any career field, from business, to the military, to education.

According to the report, Camp Counselor participants contributed $59.1 million to the U.S. economy in 2019 while costing nothing to taxpayers. In fact, the program has become so essential to American camps that 78% of host organizations would have to reduce services, while 50% would not be able to operate at all, without the Camp Counselor program.

This early international experience made a lasting impact on my life and inspired me to travel abroad. Most importantly, international exchanges benefit our local economy and foster peace internationally. Ultimately, this is a win for the United States and a win for all participating nations.

Selena Coles is the Communications Assistant at the Alliance for International Exchange.