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10th Anniversary of BridgeUSA’s Office of Private Sector Exchange Program Administration

Posted on Thursday, May 11th, 2023 at 2:52 pm.

May 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the Exchange Visitor Program’s Office of Private Sector Exchange Program Administration (OPA)

The J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program has undergone many changes since its creation through the Fulbright-Hays Act in September 1961.  At its core, the Exchange Visitor Program seeks to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange. All foreign nationals that participate in the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA)  inbound exchange programs travel on J-1 exchange visitor visas.  Over 90% of the approximately 300,000 annual J-1 exchange visitors participate in private sector programming spanning the J-1 visa categories of: Au Pair, Camp Counselor, College and University Student, Government Visitor, International Visitor, Intern, Physician, Professor, Research Scholar, Secondary School Student, Short-Term Scholar, Specialist, Summer Work Travel, Teacher, and Trainee.  Each year, ECA programs provide opportunities for visitors from roughly 200 countries and territories to experience U.S. culture and engage with Americans with the goal of increasing mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries.

In 2013, ECA Offices of Exchange  Designation, Compliance, and Policy  oversaw the Exchange Visitor Program and its growth to hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals coming to the U.S. each year to learn, share their culture, and build an international network.  As a public diplomacy program, ensuring exchange visitors’ health, safety, and welfare is paramount to the Department, so much so that as the program grew, the Department dedicated resources to create the Office of  Program Administration (OPA).

Program Analyst Joy Proctor is one of OPA’s original staff members and helped with its creation and development. “OPA works to assist sponsors with any concerns and help to interpret regulations and policies. OPA also assists   helping sponsors course correct to ensure the various programs run smoothly.”

Now with nearly 300,000 exchange visitors and 1,450 private sector and academic sponsor organizations, OPA is more important than ever. On any given day, the staff is investigating incidents and complaints received; working with sponsors to resolve issues; monitoring the health, safety, and welfare of exchange visitors; conducting routine and investigatory site visits; analyzing incident and complaint data to identify areas of need; consulting with sponsors on health, safety, and welfare policies; and compiling and sharing best practices with individual sponsors and as larger groups.

Program Analyst Lauren Grimes has been with OPA from 2014. “Since I have been working in OPA, the feedback I have seen from my colleagues and our BridgeUSA stakeholders is clearly indicative of the various J-1 visa programs being much more efficient with their mission to promote the Department’s foreign policy and mutual understanding initiatives,” she said. “Exchange visitors are safer, programs are well-monitored, and the accountability measures enacted by OPA have greatly benefitted the programs’ successes. We work closely with sponsors to keep a pulse on the program so that we can collaboratively find ways to make the program stronger and safer, while protecting the integrity, spirit, and intent of BridgeUSA.”

Grimes noted two particularly notable successes: the Summer Work Travel/Camp Counselor team’s work on supporting the creation of dozens of Community Support Groups around the country. These are volunteer organizations in areas including  Door County, Wis., Branson, Mo.,, Cape Cod, Mass., and Galveston, Texas, which provide support and assistance in providing safe and successful experiences for exchange visitors who live and work in their local communities. Whether it’s picking up exchange visitors from the airport, fixing up and donating bicycles for transportation, organizing potluck dinners, or arranging cultural excursions, they build a sense of comfort and belonging. Community Support Groups can identify systemic issues and concerns in their area, find solutions, and coordinate forums to educate the community and local businesses regarding the programs.

The other accomplishment Grimes is proud of is OPA’s ability to pivot and continue to monitor programs virtually and support exchange visitors during the  . While other exchange programs went virtual or were cancelled outright, the Exchange Visitor Program continued its mission of people-to-people exchanges and OPA didn’t miss a beat in keeping up with the status of those on their cultural exchange programs.

OPA Director, Mark Howard, sees a bright future for his office.  “Over its ten-year history, OPA has grown to an office of 24 staff, covering all 15 categories of the Exchange Visitor Program and we have worked hard to develop a partnership with our sponsor community,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all want the same thing—more exchanges. We achieve that by making sure our exchanges are safe, compliant, and meaningful for our exchange visitors.  Exchange visitors who have a productive and authentic exchange experience in the U.S. go home to tell their friends, colleagues, and family members about it and that ultimately encourages more people to participate in exchanges.”

Howard also pointed out that there is an important “protection and promotion” aspect of OPA’s work.  “First and foremost, OPA is here to ensure exchange visitor health, safety, and welfare.  At the same time, because of our on-the-ground perspective and regular engagement with communities who support these exchanges, staff are in a unique position to identify opportunities that further promote exchanges. For example, we are one year into the Early Career STEM Research Initiative, started in collaboration with the White House Office and Science Technology Policy. The initiative encourages Department-designated sponsors and U.S.-based STEM business to host STEM-focused exchange visitors.”  Howard noted that OPA’s regular discussions with sponsors and current host organizations were the catalyst to the STEM Initiative’s creation.

What will happen in the next ten years for OPA? “We are at an exciting stage for OPA and our work with the community that supports exchanges directly and indirectly,” Howard said.“With the adoption of new virtual monitoring tools OPA implemented during the pandemic, its monitoring has become more effective and efficient.”  This is the first year that OPA has conducted virtual monitoring with all current BridgeUSA exchange visitors.  Reaching over 250,000 exchange visitors with virtual surveys   in their application – with the goal of identifying and engaging exchange visitors most in need of support.  This provides OPA with more staff time to engage on sponsor, and inter-bureau, -Department, and –agency efforts that will ultimately serve to ensure the safe and continued growth of the Exchange Visitor Program.

Categories: J-1 Visa, Program Spotlight

About Rebecca Pasini

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange

Rebecca Pasini

Rebecca A. Pasini joined the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchanges in July 2023. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister - Counselor, Ms. Pasini has been an American diplomat since 1997.

Ms. Pasini previously served as the Director of Public and Congressional Affairs in the Bureau of Consular Affairs from 2021-2023. Other Washington assignments have included positions in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, the Office of Foreign Missions, and as a liaison to the Department of Homeland Security. She has also completed multiple overseas tours, including as Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs in Islamabad, Pakistan, and as the Consular Chief in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Belfast, Northern Ireland. Other tours included Mexico City and Kuwait.

A Maryland native, Ms. Pasini has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, a master’s degree in National Security and Resource Strategy from the Eisenhower School, National Defense University, and an undergraduate degree from Mary Washington College.