50/50: A Global Movement Focusing on Gender-Balance

Apr 26, 2018

Today marks the second annual 50/50 day, which is a day dedicated to working towards a more gender-balanced world. There are over 35,000 events taking place worldwide in 60 countries throughout the day. People are gathering to watch films, listen to speakers and have conversations about this important topic.

Spirit values the importance of a gender-balanced society, as the majority of our staff members and roughly 54% of our Summer Work Travel participants are women. To commemorate our support towards this movement, Spirit staff members gathered to watch films 50/50: Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Women + Power and Why I Pledge 50/50 together.

These films provide a history of gender and power and explored where we are in terms of gender equality today. They also discussed the benefits of gender balance and the importance of getting involved. The films gave some shocking statistics in regards to our world’s current gender imbalance.

  • Of 870 Nobel Prize winners, 48 have been women which is only 5%
  • For every $1 white men earn, women earn 77 cents and women of color earn even less
  • In 2016 when the film was produced, only 21 out of 116 heads of state were women which is 18%
  • Of all the elected officials in the USA, 80% are male and 80% are white
  • 95% of CEOs are men and only 5% are women
  • Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland are considered the happiest countries in the world and they have pay equality and parental leave for all genders

There is clearly a lot of work to do when it comes to making our world a more gender-balanced place. To learn more about 50/50 day click here and to learn about actions you can take, click here.


Spirit Co-Leads Participant Safety Summit!

Apr 24, 2018

Spirit Cultural Exchange recently collaborated with other J1 Visa Sponsors, Greenheart Exchange Work and Travel and CENET, to host the Midwest Safety Summit. With the busy summer season rapidly approaching, the Midwest Safety Summit was designed to heighten awareness, provide training, and instigate new initiatives to further improve J1 participant safety. 

“There are no trade secrets when it comes to participant safety. Spirit, Greenheart, and CENET are committed to sharing their best practices regarding participant safety. We are also working collaboratively to develop new initiatives to better protect the health, safety, and welfare of our participants.” said Richard Baader, CEO of Spirit Cultural Exchange. 

The event which was held at the American Red Cross regional headquarters in Chicago, included presentations from industry experts on human trafficking and the emotional support of those who experience a traumatic event. In addition to the speakers, there were breakout sections where sponsors shared their best practices and brainstormed new initiatives to better prepare for and handle participant safety issues.

Topics discussed included:

  • Bike safety
  • Housing
  • Mental health
  • Emergency response
  • Credit Card Scams
  • STD Resources
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Winter season safety

The Midwest Sponsor Safety initiative is a follow-up to the success the three sponsors had developing the J-Day event.  J-Day started in 2014 and strives to promote cultural understanding and community service in J1 communities. In just three short years it has become a nationwide event, with 52 J-Day celebrations across 20 states in 2017. 

Overall, the Midwest Safety Summit was a productive day of sharing perspectives, brainstorming new ideas and networking with others in the industry. While representatives at the summit were from three Midwest based sponsors, we hope to share our ideas and coordinate implementation across J1 organizations nationwide.


Spirit CEO Speaks Out: J-1 Visa Program Under Review, Possible Elimination

Sep 8, 2017

Via Door County Pulse

President Trump’s administration is reviewing the J-1 visa program for significant reductions, according to the Wall Street Journal. The program is being reviewed for its impact on the American workforce following the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order President Donald Trump signed in Kenosha on April 18.

The Wall Street Journal reported the State Department has been directed to rewrite regulations that would end the J-1 visa program, which includes the Summer Work Travel program used by many Door County businesses.

An estimated 440 students from abroad lived and worked in Door County this year. Local officials and visa sponsors believe the elimination of the program is misguided.

“It really is based on their misunderstanding that the J-1s are taking American jobs,” said Phil Berndt, membership director for the Door County Visitor Bureau. Berndt is also a liaison for local businesses taking part in the J-1 visa program and was able to listen into a conference call between business owners nationwide and Andrew Veprek, immigration adviser to Trump.

“Every single one of [the businesses], very clearly they demonstrated that they post the jobs and they aren’t getting any applicants for the positions,” Berndt said.

The “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signed by Trump called for a federal review of trade and immigration policies, including visa programs, to ensure they protect American companies and workers. Opponents to the visa programs believe they import a cheaper workforce, putting Americans out of jobs.

“The J-1 program exists not as a work program, it is a cultural exchange program,” said Richard Baader, CEO of the visa program sponsor company Spirit Cultural Exchange. “It’s effect on public diplomacy and national security… We change the hearts and minds of the future leaders of these other countries.”

According to Berndt, J-1 Summer Work Travel visas are regulated to ensure they are not taking these jobs away from American citizens.

J-1 visa applicants must prove they are enrolled in college and will be going back to school at the end of the season. If they wish to come back the following year, they must reapply. Other visas, such as the H-2B and H-1B, allow extensions of up to six years.

Baader said the program also ensures employers have a need for seasonal employment and have not laid off American workers in the past year.

“The whole program matches up with so many of the resorts who take advantage of the summer break,” Berndt said. “All of them fall within those key months of where you have peak need for employees.”

Brian Kelsey, managing director of Peninsula Players Theater and member of the Governor’s Council on Tourism, participated in a listening session with Congressman Mike Gallagher about tourism in general, but the J-1 conversation was one of the first topics of discussion.

“It was a group of us sharing how important the J-1 is and how it should not get wrapped into the other travel visas the administration is looking at,” said Kelsey. “[Gallagher] was very respectful and we definitely got the point across to him.”

Gallagher may be considered to join Travel and Tourism Caucus, a group of Congress members tasked with developing policies in support of tourism. He did not respond to a request for comment.

“The reality is that the Summer Work Travel program could be put out of business overnight with executive authority,” said Baader. “If you really understand the program, you would support it. Everyone would support it. We’re trying to get that communication out early so that well-intentioned people don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On Aug. 8, a group of 17 U.S. Senators, including Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in support of the Summer Work Travel program.

“Many small businesses in our states are dependent on the program to meet their seasonal labor needs,” said the letter. “It is important to note that [Summer Work Travel] program regulations contain provisions to ensure that exchange visitors do not displace American workers.”

A report from Politico determined that for some business owners in the United States, the reduction of available H-2B visas, or those for seasonal workers who are not students, did result in more Americans being hired and an increase in wages.

Berndt expressed concern that elimination of the J-1 program could have the opposite effect.

“Without those students, we would have a tremendous loss of American jobs because of the businesses that would have to close,” said Berndt.

Calling All Distinguished Alumni

Aug 2, 2017

For our 15th anniversary in 2017, Spirit Cultural Exchange wants to recognize exceptional alumni with our first Alumni Awards.

We want to know how the J1 Work and Travel experience here in the United States impacted their life. Applicants will answer the two following questions as part of their entry:

  • Describe your professional or academic career including significant involvement in community organizations, government or non-government organizations, or charities. 
  • How has your experience in the United States on the Summer Work and Travel program affected your life?

Spirit Cultural Exchange will select 10 finalists whose story will be featured on our website and highlighted with the U.S. Department of State as model alumni. They will also receive a $150 Visa gift card for travel or cultural experiences such as:

  • concert tickets
  • airline vouchers
  • hotel nights
  • tune-up English classes
  • 2-year membership to Internations networking organization

One Grand Prize winner will be selected from the finalists. Depending on their situation they will receive either:

  • $2000 personal business grant for marketing campaigns
  • $2000 donation to their NGO or charity
  • FREE 6-12 month Spirit J1 Internship Program sponsorship, insurance, visa fees (valued at over $2000)
  • $2000 towards attendance at leadership conference such as IYLC ($1650 conference fee + up to $350 flight)

Spirit understands that exchange programs can be life-changing experiences for young adults and we look forward to celebrating the impact the program has on our alumni.

Spirit Travels To: Okoboji

Jul 11, 2017

In June, Spirit representatives Jessica Hines and Austin Bentz visited Okoboji to host an International Student Outreach Program (ISOP) Orientation for J-1 participants in the area. The orientation gave participants information about the area, answered questions they had and gave them a bus tour of Okoboji. While they were there, they also got to meet with participants and employers in the area to check in and make sure everything was going smoothly so far this summer. Take a look at photos from their trip and a great article about the importance of the J1 program in Okoboji.

Spirit will be back in Okoboji on August 7th to host  J-Day, which is a celebration of J-1 participants across the United States. For more information on J-Day or to sign up to attend, click here.

Save our summer!

Jun 26, 2017

Dear exchange community, 

International students have visited our communities for years. Learning our culture. Working in your businesses. Becoming our friends.

Now, the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program is under attack.

Some in the government don’t consider Summer Work Travel a valuable cultural exchange program. They believe that SWT students take away American jobs. These government officials want to make changes to SWT that could severely damage it, and ultimately make it unworkable. 

They don’t know how much you and your guests value the diversity and international perspective SWT students bring. They don’t know how hard you try to find Americans for your seasonal jobs, and how important SWT students are to keeping your American employees working year-round. They also don’t understand that raising your costs won’t just mean you raise prices – it likely means you would need to cut back on your services and hours, or just shut your doors.

We need to tell the government about these realities, and we need your help to do it.

The Americans for Cultural Exchange coalition – coordinated by the Alliance for International Exchange – is launching the #SaveOurSummer campaign so we can make our voices heard.

Here’s what you can do: 

1. Write your US Congressional Representatives. This will only take a minute as the letter is pre-written and you can send as is.

2. Call your Representative and Senators. We’re providing talking points to help you make your case - click here to make calls.

3. Join our webinar on how to go to engage your Representative’s or Senators’ offices, how to talk with them, and how to effectively demand action to save Summer Work Travel. We’ll hold a live webinar where we can answer your questions, and will make a recording available afterwards. You can sign up here.

4. Sign our petition in support of Summer Work Travel. We give a copy of this petition, with every signer arranged by state, to every Representative, Senator, and government official we meet. You can sign the petition by clicking here.

5. Participate in the #SaveOurSummer social media campaign. Check out all the social media tools and recommendations here, and start posting #SaveOurSummer on all your social media sites. Also, encourage your SWT students to join this campaign.

Now is the time to act, during summer vacation, when Members of Congress are back in your hometown, and your Summer Work Travel participants are here. Let’s #SaveOurSummer.


Rich Baader

CEO, Spirit Cultural Exchange

Spirit Sponsors International Student Outreach Program

Jun 6, 2017

Spirit Cultural Exchange recently hosted the first Okoboji International Student Outreach Program (ISOP). ISOPs are common in regions that host a large number of J1 international students such as the Wisconsin Dells, Outer Banks and Ocean City. As the number of J1s placed in Okoboji continues to grow, the ISOP aimed to bring together sponsors, employers, and community members that support the many J1 students that spend their summers in Okoboji each year. A representative from the US Department of State, Henry Scott, also presented at the meeting to discuss their role in the participant’s program.

At the meeting we discussed important terms and what they mean to the J1 program in the Okoboji area including “participant,” “agent,” and “sponsor.” The agent is located in the participant’s home country and facilitates the visa process with the sponsor, such as Spirit. We also discussed the importance of the cultural exchange attribute of the program. The J1 program is an exchange program with a work component, which means that cultural activities should be a high focus, especially for the members of the ISOP.

We talked about the best practices that employers and community members utilize to help the participants be the most successful, and also the challenges that Okoboji faces, including finding short term affordable housing.

The Okoboji ISOP was a great step in making Okoboji an even better place for students to spend their summers. Moving forward, an introduction to Okoboji website and handbook for participants is being created and will be available for distribution shortly. We’ve also created an online forum for all Host Companies, community members, sponsors, and participants to join and share information.

We appreciate all the help and cooperation as we launch this group aimed at helping the J1 community in Okoboji! For more information on the Okoboji ISOP, click here to check out the great coverage of the meeting from the Dickinson County News.

DEADLINE EXTENDED! Support Senator Booker's Response Letter to President Trump's Proposed Budget

Mar 28, 2017

Our exchange community has done a great job engaging the House these past few weeks. Now our attentions turn to the senate.

We need to support Senator Cory Booker as he leads a “Dear Colleague” letter to the Senate State, Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee in support of exchange programs. Like the House letter, this calls for the highest possible funding level for State Department exchanges in FY2018. 

The deadline for Senators to join this “Dear Colleague” letter is Friday, March 31 Thursday, April 6. We helped generate more than 7,000 letters to the House of Representatives and we want to do the same for the Senate! 

Here’s how to help:

  1. Send a letter to your Senators, asking them to sign the Booker “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter is prewritten and takes only minutes to send. You also have the option to personalize your letter.
  2. Ask your host institutions, families, friends, and other acquaintances to send a letter as well.
  3. Share the request on social media.

The letter writing campaigns are a response to the Trump administration’s release of its FY2018 budget, which calls for an unprecedented 28% cut to the Department of State. If enacted into law, these cuts would harm our nation’s public diplomacy efforts and, ultimately, our national security and economy.

Click here to learn more about the global impact of international exchanges.

Spirit CEO Responds to President Trump's Proposal to Cut State Department Budget

Mar 16, 2017

Today, the Trump administration released their recommendations for unprecedented cuts of 28 percent for the Department of State, and significant but unspecified cuts to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). See page 33 of the administration’s budget. The outline suggests that the Fulbright Program will be funded at some level, but other funded programs may be dramatically cut. At this point there is no indication of cuts to the Office of Private Sector Exchange which includes our Summer Work Travel, Internship, and Trainee programs. The Alliance for International Exchange, which represents the international exchange industry, issued a press release warning that these cuts could do significant long term damage to US foreign diplomacy and national security. It is more important than ever that we clearly communicate the low cost and strong benefits of our international exchange programs. In doing so we will keep the following in mind:

• The administration’s budget is a set of recommendations to Congress. Although Congress will actively negotiate with the administration, Congress ultimately has the authority and responsibility to develop and pass a federal budget.

• The international community has already begun advocating for exchange funding. Spirit joined other members of The Alliance for International Exchange in meetings with 171 congressional offices on March 9th. We received many supportive comments from Hill offices during these meetings.

• There is already strong, bi-partisan congressional support for international exchange programs. In fact, leaders in the Senate and House have either rejected or voiced deep skepticism about making dramatic cuts to State’s budget.

• The budget details for ECA will be released later this spring, most likely in May when the entire budget is released. The 2018 budget is likely to be resolved sometime in the fall or early winter.

• There will be additional advocacy activities in the weeks and months to come through which we can all engage congressional offices. So stay tuned!

Our programs have the power to transform individual lives and make the world a safer place. We have a track record of reaching future leaders and delivering a positive experience in the USA. In fact, the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. I am confident that those results will become clear over time and that we will successfully navigate these choppy waters.

Thank you for everything you do to make our international exchange programs successful,




Richard Baader
Spirit Cultural Exchange

Spirit CEO comments on outlook for U.S. immigration regulations

Feb 10, 2017

February 10, 2017

Dear Cultural Exchange Community,

The USA is definitely in a period of self-assessment about our immigration and visa policies. While the immigration issue is complex and multifaceted, Americans largely agree that international cultural exchange is positive for our country and the world. The J-1 Visa is an important part of that cultural exchange system. The J-1 Visa is not an immigrant visa but rather a cultural exchange visa providing various opportunities to work, intern, study, travel, or teach while exchanging cultures and ideas with Americans. As a J-1 Work/Travel, Internship and Trainee Program sponsor, Spirit provides an opportunity for future leaders from around the world to learn about our culture and values. We encourage young people to experience the United States in a way that is educational for them and productive for the USA. These young people experience the USA up close, develop a strong understanding of our culture and values, and return to their home countries to profess an honest, positive view of our country. In fact, in a recent industry-wide survey of J-1 Work/Travel participants, 90% of participants reported having a positive experience with Americans and the American workplace.

Some of our host employers, international agents, and program participants have expressed concern that recent Presidential Executive Orders might affect the Spirit J-1 programs. What I can tell you is that Spirit has received no information that would suggest an imminent change to program regulations. The J-1 Work/Travel regulations have been strengthened over the last several years and the result is a stronger program that better serves and protects our program participants. Spirit expects that those regulations will continue to evolve to meet changing conditions and program needs. When appropriate, Spirit actively provides feedback to the Department of State regarding proposed regulations.

What is most important now is that we do our jobs well. The   J-1 Program will continue to thrive if we live up to the ideals of the program and deliver a high quality cultural exchange experience to our participants, which will enhance their lives as well as the communities they visit.

Spirit is excited for the coming year and looks forward to welcoming our participants to the USA!

Warm Regards, 





Rich Baader
Spirit Cultural Exchange