By: Haldis Toppen, Director of Communications, Greenheart International
Greenheart staff members: Daniel, Haldis and Maria
On October 18-19, 2022, the Alliance for International Exchange held their annual conference in Washington D.C. I attended with my colleagues, Daniel Ebert, President of Greenheart International and Maria Pakhomova, Vice President of Program Support and Compliance at Greenheart. This was my first time attending the conference and it was a delight!
The cultural exchange industry has had many shake-ups the past 3 years. From the pandemic to executive orders and general uncertainty of the future, things have been rough. However, the conference this year was full of hope, excitement, and collaboration as shared by the theme “Embracing Change through Innovation.”
The Alliance’s new Executive Director, Mark Overmann, started just days before the conference and was already settling into his new role well. Mark had worked at the Alliance previously and after some years out of the industry, he has come back with fresh ideas that will support the work we do.
In addition to the new leadership, the collaboration between BridgeUSA sponsors, organizations and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs was electric. Whether it was the opening remarks from Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Lee Satterfield, the panel discussion with the four Deputy Assistant Secretaries (including Nicole Elkon, DAS for Private Sector Exchanges), sessions diving into specific topics, or networking opportunities, I left rejuvenated for 2023.
Speaking of 2023, here are the focuses we anticipate the exchange community will have next year:
- Electronic signatures – With the support of the Alliance, the industry has been advocating for electronic signatures on DS 2019 forms. Due to increased cost in postage and delays in embassy appointments, handwritten signatures are delaying the arrivals of exchange visitors. By making the signatures electronic allow for faster arrivals. The Alliance is working closely with ECA on this and we hope there will be positive news in 2023. This effects all BridgeUSA categories, including SWT, Intern/Trainee, Teach USA and High School.
- ECA leadership site visits – DAS Elkon stated that there is going to be a lot more domestic engagement in 2023 with opportunities for her and her team to meet with exchange visitors and their hosts. Greenheart hopes to maximize these trips so our participants, host families and host employers meet with important leadership of our programs.
- Continued collaboration between Consular Affairs and ECA – During the pandemic, BridgeUSA visa holders were not prioritized when visa appointments were re-opening up. As a result, while exchange visitors could come to the U.S., not many were able to find an appointment for their visa. While generally more appointments are now available, the industry would like for the BridgeUSA visa holders to be re-prioritized.. The Alliance will continue to work with consulates and embassies so that communication is transparent.
- Elections – As the midterm elections have ended, the community will need to see how the new members of congress support our programs. 2023 will also be the beginning of the Presidential election cycle, which will mean the industry will have to stay on the pulse of what to expect.
- Focus on National Security Goals – The Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy would be “the guiding document” for the Bureau’s priorities. This strategy is expected to be part of any work done in 2023. The Alliance’s Mark Overmann, created an assessment of how this strategy is applicable to the exchange industry.
I personally look forward to working on all these focuses in 2023!