Throughout 2020, the InterExchange team doubled down on our dedication to, and continuation of, our mission. Between the global pandemic, international travel restrictions, and presidential proclamations, I daresay that InterExchange had it’s single most challenging year. Like you, every one of us struggled with both professional and personal loss, stress and sadness at the state of the world.
InterExchange’s Work & Travel USA Senior Vice President of Programs, Casey Slamin, summarizes our frustration at not being able to support as broad a range of cultural exchange as in past years. “In the last ten years, about one million young people have visited the USA, improved their English, and shared their culture with Americans,” says Casey. “Long after they go home, they remain ambassadors between their home countries and the USA. That’s why we saw even a temporary slowdown of this program as such a blow to the InterExchange mission of cultural exchange.” Understandably, Casey and the team were at first disappointed.
However, we soon observed that, where the program did continue, its successes were notable. It brings us a great deal of pleasure to shine a light on these stories of success, no matter how small. Toward the end of 2020, our Work & Travel team welcomed 20 young Paraguayan university students to the winter Work & Travel USA program. These brave individuals came to experience cultural exchange in the U.S. with 12 different host employers from ski resorts to local town businesses throughout the country. This is what they had to share with us.
When we talked to them about why the Summer Work Travel program was so important to them, in spite of the global pandemic, a common theme was the program’s importance to their future goals. Camila from Asunción explained:
“My future career goal is to apply to a Master or a PhD program in the U.S. or in Europe. The Work and Travel USA program will help me get the experience universities normally look for and also improve my level of English which is important no matter what field I decide to get into.”
Similarly, Agustina (also from Asunción) saw working in the USA as an opportunity for professional growth. “I wanted to have new experiences and learn from them,” said Agustina. “Such as meeting new people, learning from different cultures, being forced to practice my English, and becoming more independent.
But wasn’t Agustina concerned about being part of such a small group of participants? Right now, COVID-19 cases are, in many areas of the world, in decline. However, the reality was very different when Agustina applied in fall 2020.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Agustina emphatically told us. “I’ve wanted to do Summer Work Travel since I was 16. As soon as I met the requirements, I didn’t want to lose the chance to participate. Since the program was still open at that point, I decided that was the best time to apply.” Now that’s brave!
Despite this enthusiasm, Agustina had some small concerns. She was curious how she’d get along with coworkers and customers in her summer job. “In Paraguay, many people look down on service workers and treat them poorly.” But she was pleasantly surprised: “Here they treat workers very well, and with so much patience!”
Agustina’s biggest takeaway from the program? She did a final trip throughout the USA with friends from her program. “Those memories will last forever,” she said.
One of the friends Agustina made on the trip was a fellow student from Paraguay. Paulie is from Fernando de la Mora, a city near the capital of Asunción. Paulie was happy to see fellow Paraguayans on his trip. He also was able to share parts of his own culture with others. “I speak Guarani” – one of Paraguay’s official languages, along with Spanish – “and I shared Guarani slang, along with traditional folk dances, with my roommates.”
Many brave, adventurous young students were, unfortunately, not able to join the Summer Work Travel program because of restrictions related to COVID-19. The ones that did took a leap into uncertainty and we’re happy to say that, in a very atypical year, InterExchange worked to maintain the sort of cultural exchange that is typical to our mission.
We work for these stories, and the thousands of others just like it. It is why we do what we do. And we will continue to do the work and advocate for the safe restoration of all our programs in 2021. We hope to hear more from our awesome participants and share in their future success with the InterExchange community.