Learning about J-1 Program Participants

Growing up, I never knew the term J-1 existed. Even into early adulthood I was clueless. But then it happened. I discovered what “J-1” meant. For years now, this simple letter and number have become my world… literally.

J-1 is a term used to refer to a type of visa granted to internationals to enter the United States. “The Exchange Visitor (J) non-immigrant visa category is for individuals approved to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs. There are fifteen different categories of participants under the J-1 visa program. College and university students at foreign universities gain first-hand experience as they work in seasonal or temporary jobs and travel in the United States during their summer.” (https://j1visa.state.gov/)

My first introduction to J-1 program participants was during their Summer Work Travel program, in which I worked side-by-side with them in seasonal food and beverage jobs. This was my first real exposure to people from other countries. I came from a sheltered small town in Utah so the world they brought to me with their cultural diversity was fascinating! I took them to exciting places, and they stayed at my house during trips. I learned things about their culture and they learned about mine. We became friends and (according to Facebook) after 15 years our friendship continues.

When I became a manager, I continued to have the opportunity to mentor and befriend the J-1 program participants. I helped teach those who spoke beginners English what certain phrases meant such as, “Can I have some more water?” when guests began to wonder why they were not responding. I honored those who ‘rocked’ the busser duties because it said great things about them and also portrayed their entire country as hard workers. I explained how American culture strictly expected people to come to work at the scheduled time.

As I moved up the career ladder, I eventually landed a position where I got to manage the J-1 program at my company. We hired 250 J-1 participants every summer. As the recruiting manager, this task was a whole new world to figure out. This included: five properties to place the participants in, coordinating onsite housing, determining which jobs to place them in, deciding what countries to choose from with all different availability, figuring out how to handle the visa denials, making sure they all applied to our company’s application and much more. These tasks required to be done before they arrived. Once they were on site, I became their go-to person for questions about their program, concerns about the difficulty of line level laboring, their misunderstandings from cultural diversities, and the most common request—“Where can I get second job?”

Since we lived on the resort property where housing was provided for all staff, my children got to play ball with them, listen to, attempt to speak their native language, and eat in the cafeteria with them.

My favorite honor was from a cultural norm. A common salutation spoken to me, “Ma’am Shawna” in Filipino sounded like “Mom Shawna.” I felt like their mom away from home. I was a caretaker for them. I cared about their cultural experiences in a remote National Park in America. I loved seeing them make friends with others from around the globe. I took personal pride that they worked harder than most of our domestic staff. I watched them return year after year because they were climbing 13,000 foot mountain peaks on their adventures. They also reached peaks of achievement as their English abilities sky rocked. They also learned to excel at the jobs they initially struggled with. The participants impressed roommates by cooking delicious traditional dishes, and they cried when they had to say goodbye.

After I moved, I needed to find a new job. I immediately knew where I wanted to work. I sought out Greenheart Exchange, a sponsor for the J-1 visa Summer Work Travel program. I now work to help employers get approved to hire J-1 participants in their own communities. I thrive on seeing others emerge into the discoveries of human diversity and the delight of different cultures. I get to travel to the countries my J-1 friends are from. I can now be a part of bringing thousands of J-1 participants to the U.S. By bringing them into my world, my world expanded.

J-1, this once unknown term to me now has a rich and full meaning. It is just one letter and one number. But to me it means one amazing cultural experience- one country, one person at a time.