Welcome to our new member – IREX
Interview with Louisa Manzeske, Senior Program Officer
Tell us your story. How did IREX get started?
For this, I’d like to give a brief overview of IREX’s history as an organization, and then tell you about a particular exchange program we administer which is what I believe will be of most interest to the WYSE Travel Confederation community.
IREX is a global development and education organization based in Washington, DC. We were originally founded in 1968 to bridge geopolitical divides by fostering the exchange of scholars, teachers, students, and ideas. IREX later built on our expertise and network of relationships in Eurasia to support people driving educational reform, leading newly empowered movements in civil society, and building effective and accountable governance. As global needs shifted, IREX brought its expertise to new regions—first Asia, then the Middle East and Africa, then Latin America. Today, IREX works with partners in 120 countries to build a more just, prosperous, and inclusive world by empowering youth, cultivating leaders, strengthening institutions, and extending access to quality education and information.
Throughout IREX’s history, people-to-people exchange programs have been at the heart of our work. We have 45 years of experience as a U.S. Department of State sponsor of J-1 exchange visas for visiting university students, professors, and researchers.
About 10 years ago, IREX began a fee-for-service program to sponsor visiting “research scholars,” a type of J-1 exchange visitors who conduct collaborative research at select partnering “host organizations” while experiencing life in America. By bringing bright minds together to tackle some of today’s pressing research questions, J-1 research-based exchange programs are catalysts for innovation and international research efforts and build linkages between people, institutions, and laboratories around the world.
Some important context is that traditionally, J-1 research scholar programs have nearly always been administered by universities. IREX’s program fills a unique need by opening access for other types of institutions and organizations to host visiting scholars, including companies, research institutes, museums, think tanks, and non-profit research facilities. Our exchange programs might look like a guest scientist who consults on a long- or short-term research project, a postdoctoral or academic fellowship program, a research-based training program, or other models. IREX doesn’t do the placement—our role is to work with those scholars and U.S. organizations who have identified each other and have the desire to collaborate, but don’t yet have the visa mechanism to enable it.
What makes IREX different from your competitors?
Well, first of all, IREX serves a different population than many of the J-1 exchange visitor sponsors in the WYSE Travel Confederation membership. Typically our participants are older—they might be getting their PhDs, have a recent Master’s or PhD degree, or be working as researchers or professors abroad. IREX’s J-1 Scholar sponsorship grants access for such participants to apply their research backgrounds in collaborative research-focused exchanges with American experts in their fields.
Second, among the entities that are authorized by the Department of State to sponsor J-1 research scholars, most are universities. There are few organizations who can sponsor exchange visitors to participate in research that occurs outside of the university setting. So this is something special that sets IREX apart. We know a lot of important research is happening both in and outside of academia, and therefore IREX fills an important niche by supporting scholars who seek to apply their skills at corporate or non-profit research facilities, museums, libraries, and other institutions.
Since what IREX offers is so niche, we don’t have many direct competitors. Among those few that exist, I would say IREX is different because (1) we have been specializing in research-based exchange programs in partnership with third-parties for such a long time, (2) we’re told our customer service and responsiveness to participants and their hosts sets us apart, and (3) fees earned from our program “give back,” supporting IREX’s global development mission to build a more just prosperous and inclusive world.
What is your favourite success story from your organisation?
It’s hard to choose! IREX scholars are engaged in research across such diverse and interesting areas
I always enjoy some of the stories that are a little “outside the box.” For example, we have a scholar that applies mathematical algorithms to help with malaria control; we have a scholar working on computer vision research that would predict for and help respond to natural hazards like wildfires; another scholar brings expertise on the Arctic States’ international relations to a U.S. think tank. And, I recently met with one of our Chinese scholars who has been studying how the United States applies conservation easements and other legal mechanisms to protect its national parks; she aims to take back best practices as China develops its own protections to conserve areas of natural beauty.
What can we expect to see from IREX in the future?
At the moment, our main goal is outreach and education about exchange programs for research in the United States. We hope to grow the volume of exchange participants in our program as awareness builds. Over the next year, we’re especially interested to speak with any WYSE Travel Confederation members who have experience promoting U.S. exchange experiences for work, or to university populations, in case there could be opportunities for partnership—in case IREX’s program could open to them a new market of potential participants.
Which trends do you see in educational and active youth travel?
We definitely see there is growing interest in visas for visiting researchers to apply their academic research background in the private sector. Many scholars find it meaningful to connect their research to an outcome that will solve real-world problems.
How do you work to ensure the health and safety of young travellers involved with IREX?
As designated sponsors of the J-1 exchange visitor visa, we ensure that all exchange visitors on our program have ample health and accident insurance during their stay in the United States. This insurance should protect them from emergencies and complies with the J-1 visa requirements for all exchange visitors in the United States.
What was your motivation to join WYSE Travel Confederation?
Broadly, IREX aims to raise visibility globally about exchange program options for postgraduates, scientists, and academics to be visiting research scholars to the United States. Further, we’d like to get the word out that research exchanges under IREX sponsorship can occur at universities or in corporate or non-profit research settings.
In joining the WYSE Travel Confederation, IREX hopes to get to know the network’s global membership—especially those with expertise promoting university-level and/or work-based exchanges to the United States. Many of your members work with the J-1 visa’s Intern and Trainee categories for exchanges in the private sector, but might be less familiar with the J-1 Research Scholar and Short-term Scholar options, which target different populations.
We look forward to learning about your experience and would like to gauge perspective on the market potential for promoting research scholar exchange programs. Where applicable, we would certainly be interested in developing mutually beneficial partnerships.
Have you attended a WYSE Travel Confederation event? (WYSTC, STAY WYSE, WYSE Exchange Australia, WETM-IAC) If so, what was your experience with the event?
No, we have not previously attended an event, but we will be coming to Lisbon in October 2019 so we look forward to conversations with other WYSE Travel Confederation members and opportunities to learn their perspectives on our program and identify potential partnerships!
What is an industry challenge your organisation is facing currently?
As we have been alluding, one of IREX’s biggest challenges is the lack of awareness that a visa even exists for exchange visitors to conduct research in the United States. Among those who are aware of the visa, there’s still limited knowledge that this visa status can be used for research not only in academia but also in the private sector, when authorized by the program sponsor. The scholars we talk to are thrilled when they learn that our program is available.
Another challenge which may be more widely shared by other WYSE Travel Confederation members (at least those working on U.S. work- and study-based exchanges) is that under the current government, all matters concerning immigration are receiving additional scrutiny. While it doesn’t prevent program participation, this can create lengthened timelines for obtaining visas and heightened stress for participants.
IREX is a global development and education organization based in Washington, DC. We strive for a more just, prosperous, and inclusive world—where individuals reach their full potential, governments serve their people, and communities thrive.
IREX’s Exchange Program for Visiting Scholars supports foreign researchers, professors, and scientists to obtain J-1 “exchange visitor” visas to engage in collaborative research with U.S. host organizations while getting to know
American culture firsthand.
U.S. companies, research institutes, universities, museums, think tanks, and similar institutions partner with IREX to host visiting researchers under this program. Visitors’ program activities might include doctoral/postdoctoral research, academic seminars, or consulting roles as guest scientists.
Exchange visitors and their U.S. counterparts report mutual benefits, including gaining cutting-edge skills, fresh perspectives on scientific problems, and lasting relationships with professionals, institutions, and laboratories around the world. More broadly, the program catalyzes international research efforts and innovation around some of the most
pressing global issues.
IREX’s role is visa sponsorship and guiding parties through the U.S. immigration process, once they have established a desire to collaborate. As a Department of State sponsor of J-1 visas, IREX has administered customized exchanges for students and professionals for 45 years, sponsoring over 1,600 participants in 2018.
Membership: WYSE Travel Confederation Full Member
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