Laura N. Iowa

Picture This

You're in a foreign country by yourself. What would you do?

Dear Future President,

Picture this: it's pouring rain, you are miles from where you are staying, and the only transportation you have is a bike. This is not far off from some of the experiences of the students in America on a J1 visa. I live in a small town in Northwestern Iowa that acquires a large influx of foreign workers every summer. Most of these people are college-aged kids who have come here on the terms of a J1 visa. They come from all over the world: Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, and the Dominican Republic. All of these workers are needed because we are centered around five lakes that attract thousands of tourists each year.

The demands of the tourist season are very high. All of the tourist businesses require workers, and with a year-round population as low as ours, roughly 8,000 people, we cannot fill all of the positions needed to keep these businesses open and running.

The foreign workers are here through the Summer Work Travel Program as part of the J1 visa. When asked why they have chosen to come here, many would say that they want to enhance their English speaking skills. Furthermore, being a part of this work program allows them to be completely immersed in the American and English speaking society. I think that this program is a wonderful opportunity for these students. They are given chances here that they don’t receive in their home countries. However, there is a problem with how the workers are left to completely fend for themselves once they are here.

When the students arrive at their destination, they are given a place to live, a bike, and a job assignment. They are to report to their work when needed and then go home when they’re done to sleep in cramped apartments and living spaces. The bicycles they are given are their main form of transportation, riding them to work and to get groceries and other supplies.

However, these kids are not informed of the safety measures that must be taken in order to stay safe on our busy streets and highways. In the summer of 2015, a girl was killed on her way home from work one night while riding her bike. When riding in the streets, many don’t take the necessary precautions. In addition, it would be best for them to use our bike trails to get around, but these workers are not shown where the trails are or how to use them. To make matters worse, most of the bikes the students ride are too small for them, and they have no way to adjust the bikes to a better fit.

This summer, my church started a program every Tuesday night for the students to attend that provided entertainment and help learning the English language. The workers who attended had a ton of fun with it and loved having something to do other than work and sit at home.

I think this was a great idea, and I’m glad my church took this opportunity of mission work. However, it shouldn’t be the church’s job to help these students learn and understand American culture, language, and customs. Instead, they should be better cared for by those who brought them here, the government workers in charge of the J1. While I understand that the National Visa Center has a lot going on and handles many issues dealing with visas and immigration, I think that we need to portray our country well to these students. Many of them have come here in hopes of attending college in the United States or pursuing a future of living here. Also, our country offers so many opportunities that are not offered in other places. For this reason, we need to ensure that these students are taken better care of.

The most important thing that should be done to help protect these students would be to provide some contacts. Local people who would be willing to give rides, provide entertainment, help them learn customs, and build relationships with them. Give them someone to call who would be able to help these students out in a time of need. It would not be difficult to find families, couples, or singles who would act as mentors and advisors to the foreign workers.

Another thing that must happen is a class or session that helps teach the students about how to stay safe and be aware in our country. While these classes need to provide general information, they also need to be specific to the area that each individual will be working at. Obviously, our Iowa town is going to be a lot different than an area on the East or West Coast. Informing the workers will help them adjust to the area better and feel more comfortable once they get here.

Overall, I am glad the National Visa Center offers this program and opportunity to college students around the globe. I think there are many positive sides to this whole program and that it is very beneficial. Of course, there is always room for progress, and I think that there are some very important improvements that can be done to better all that the J1 Visa offers. I think the best way to put this into perspective is to picture sending your own child to some far off country to live and work for months. Wouldn’t you be worried if you were to find out that one day they were left alone in the pouring rain, with nowhere to go and no one to call?


Laura Nielsen