1. Tell us your story. How did IREX get started?
IREX is a global development and education organization based in Washington, DC. We were originally founded in 1968 under the name International Research and Exchanges Board and our roots are in fostering the exchange of scholars, teachers, students, and ideas between the US and the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. 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.
We have 50 years of experience as a U.S. Department of State sponsor of J-1 exchange visas for visiting university students, professors, and researchers. Almost 10 years ago, IREX began a fee-for-service J-1 program to sponsor visiting “research scholars” who conduct collaborative research at select partnering “host organizations” while experiencing life in America. J-1 research scholar programs are almost always administered by universities. IREX’s program fills a unique need by opening access for different types of institutions and organizations to host visiting scholars, including companies, research institutes, museums, think tanks, and nonprofit 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.
2. What makes IREX different from your competitors?
Our participants are usually graduate students, PhD students, professional researchers or professors so they are a bit further into their careers. This is very different that what most of the WYSE Travel Confederation works with. This is also a niche J-1 visa and as mentioned above, is mostly sponsored by universities who are bringing scholars to their institutions. This sets IREX apart from the normal university setting. Because this is such a niche visa, we do not do 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 do not yet have the J-1 visa.
While there are a few other J-1 research scholar and short-term scholar sponsors outside of universities, we believe we stand out with our customer service and responsiveness to our hosts, participants and partners. We also have been specializing in exchange programs for a long time and have lots of knowledge on these research-based exchange programs. Lastly, the fees we earn for this program go back into IREX’s funds that support their global development mission, which is to a build a more just, prosperous and inclusive world.
3. What is your favourite success story from your organisation?
We have had many scholars work on incredible research. From researching virtual reality and its effect in rehabilitating people with blindness, to the power of cosmic voids and its effect on dark matter within black holes, to better methods for early cancer detection and prevention, to COVID-19 treatments, to the origins of life through the philosophy of biology, to how the US uses legal mechanisms to conserve land such as in our National Parks, to researching safer and longer lasting lithium batteries for electric vehicles and beyond. I especially enjoy reading stories from scholars who have had a fully immersive cultural experience and are able to bring back the American business practices they have learned as well as the American culture.
4. What can we expect to see from IREX in the future?
IREX wants to grow our business with international partners for our research scholar, short-terms scholar, specialist, and professor visas. We are also hoping to expand as sponsors into the intern and trainee J-1 visa designation.
5. Which trends do you see in educational and active youth travel?
Post-Covid has allowed the world to want to travel again which has greatly increased the need and want for these J-1 cultural exchange programs. We have exponentially grown post-covid and believe the want for this cross-cultural exchange will only continue to grow. Much of these post-grad youth want this real-world experience to be able to grow within their area of speciality.
6. How do you work to ensure the health and safety of young travellers involved with IREX?
As a J-1 sponsor, it is our obligation to ensure the participants are covered by health and accident insurance the meets the J-1 requirements. We also offer a 24/7 emergency phone line for all our participants in the US, on the J-1 research visa or other IREX programs.
7. What was your motivation to join WYSE Travel Confederation?
We previously joined in 2019, but after the pandemic, we had to cut back on costs and suspend program growth goals. We are now working to grow and market our business again. Through the WYSE Travel Confederation, we want to increase our outreach, grow our partner relationships and expand out knowledge in the sector.
8. 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?
I attended WYSTC this year and it was a very positive experience. I participated in many learning sessions and 20-minute meetings with prospective partners. Some of these initial conversations have continued after WYSTC so we find the attendance a success.
9. What is an industry challenge your organisation is facing currently?
One post-Covid challenge we see is the want for remote learning and research with more flexibility to travel. While it is great to have this flexibility, this poses a problem for the J-1 visa. Specifically for the research scholar and short-term scholar visa, these participants need to be engaged in in-person research and collaborating with American researchers. They may want to come to the US to research with a host organization, but also have the flexibility to do their research from anywhere in the US. Unfortunately, this is not possible for this visa, and we can see this possibly being a negative trend towards youth wanting to participate in the J-1 visa in the future.
IREX works with partners in more than 100 countries in four areas essential to progress: empowering youth, cultivating leaders, strengthening institutions, and extending access to quality education and information. Our work includes reducing corruption, stopping disinformation, and building social trust.
Membership type: Associate Member