Last year, 17-year old Synne Fjellvoll from Norway was one of 28,142 foreign exchange students granted a J-1 VISA to study in the U.S. as a foreign exchange student in 2009. Synne and her parents researched various student exchange programs before settling on the Education Foundation for Foreign Study (EF), which spread glossy brochures around Norway’s many highs schools and held a local EF seminar in their hometown promoting their student exchange program under the slogan “Personal Service”, “Safety”, “Quality”. At a cost of US$6,000, plus an extra US$500 to ensure that she was sent to the “Southern States”, everything seemed set for the experience of a lifetime. Says Synne; “I was so excited to study abroad in the United States of America. It was a dream come true.”
Synne’s dream was soon to turn into a nightmare. Placed in the care of what appeared to be an all-American host family in Branchville, South Carolina, she soon started to have misgivings of the people assigned to care for her wellbeing. In Synne’s case, the failure to do background checks on the host family as well as the local EF representative, both of whom the sponsoring organization had been using for years, were the gravest of several violations of Federal Regulations perpetrated by EF. Background checks would immediately have thrown up several red flags, had they ever been undertaken, as Federal Regulations clearly state. A closer look by a private investigator and ex-FBI agent has showed that the local EF representative assigned to Synne as her 24-hour support person; Linda Davis (or Linda J. Teller), in fact had 10 liens & judgments and 3 criminal convictions against her, as well as a history of using numerous aliases. Furthermore, 36 judgments and liens are registered against her host mother Gidget Vickers.
Federal Regulations state that foreign exchange students must be placed within a “nurturing environment” in a “financially stable home”. However, with the host father unemployed for the first 6 months of her stay and the host mother holding down two jobs to support the family’s 5 children, Synne’s chores swiftly added up to include babysitting the two youngest kids every day after school from 3:00 – 6:00 pm and on weekends, mow the lawn, walk the dogs, do the dishes and even wash her host sister’s clothes on Sundays. Explains Synne; “I never felt like part of the family, I felt like a maid. It hurt me when my 16-year old host sister was allowed to hang out with her friends and go to the movies, while I had to stay home to babysit.”
Worse, the home was clearly uninhabitable by most health & hygiene standards. Several untrained dogs were urinating and defecating around the house, which also suffered mould problems. Explains the exchange student; “The stench was disgusting. Several holes in the roof and walls were scantily covered by cardboard and boards, and the window in my room was broken. It was freezing in my room when the frost came”.
Host families are also required to provide meals for the students. However, Synne was quickly also told that she had to buy her own food as well as any other items that she needed. She was not allowed to eat from the family fridge and had to pay for her own food when the family ordered Chinese takeout, which was frequent. Branchville is a town 1,083 people, with 54% white and 43 % African American inhabitants. She was told by her host mother that “black people were a bad influence and would get her involved in drugs.”
Under the constant threat of being sent home, Synne was frequently forced to sign EF “ Success Plan for Student Behaviour” and “Academic Agreements” admitting to her many failures, presented to her by her host mother and local EF representative Linda Davis. Grounded for weeks and isolated in a foreign country far away from home, her telephone was confiscated and her internet access taken away for weeks on end, making it impossible for her to contact her family. Says Synne; “I was threatened by the host mother all the time. I was frequently told “Synne, you are in big trouble” and “if you don’t pull it together we are going to have to send you home early. And you have yourself to blame. You did this to yourself.”
Federal Regulations state that sponsoring organizations must provide a student card with a telephone number that affords immediate contact with both the program sponsor and the sponsor’s local representative. The regulations also state that local area representatives must check in with exchange students at least once a month. As early as in October 2009, Synne spent several days unsuccessfully trying to reach her local contact local EF representative Linda Davis on the telephone number written on her student card. Explained Synne; “I tried to call Davis several times. Nobody picked up the phone.” She then dialed the number to EF’s office in Boston and requested a change of family. The phone call was answered by Program Coordinator Claudia Jackson, who told her to call her local representative who according to Jackson was “always available”. Jackson stated that anyway, it was “too late to change family”. Synne’s student card failed to include a toll free phone number to the U.S. State Department, the supervisory body of student exchange programs, which according to Federal Regulations should have been printed on the card. Says Synne’s father Per Fjellvoll; “My daughter was held hostage in a house and with a family who did not want her there as anything other than a housekeeper and a babysitter.”
When Linda Davis finally contacted Synne in late December 2009, and the Norwegian exchange student again requested a change of family, the EF coordinator told her that she was; “always complaining and whining”. According to Davis, the Vicker’s were “a good family and you are the one making all this trouble for us. It is always the Norwegian exchange students that are hardest!” EF representatives also repeatedly turned their back on the 17-year old when she repeatedly turned to them for help via phone and email in January, February and March 2010. She was called a ‘liar”, a “troublemaker” and conveniently ignored. However, she complained one time too many and was “removed from the program” by EF in a whirlwind of accusations in March 2010, after what EF claimed were “a number of chances to improve her behavior”.
According to Toralf Slovik, EF’s Program Coordinator in Oslo, Norway, who contacted her natural parents, Synne was being sent home because she had been expelled by Branchville High School. Says her father; “I called the Principal of Synne’s High School and he told me that he knew nothing about my daughter being expelled.” The “expulsion” later turned out to be an erroneous translation of the word “detention”, but EF was adamant that she still had to be repatriated due to “bad behavior”, “bad grades” and too many “social activities”. Synne in fact had little time to commit to spare time activities due to daily babysitting responsibilities, house chores and two-three weekly Church visits. Says the exchange student; “My host mother told me that I had to take most responsibility since I was the oldest.”
The Principal and teachers at Branchville High School were deliberately kept at an arm’s length and forced to watch from afar, although several posed questions with Synne’s host mother’s demands for her to be enrolled in several too advanced and unnecessary classes, contrary to the curriculum that had been chosen for her in collaboration with her local high school and natural parents prior to her departure from Norway. While EF maintains that Synne had problems at school, neither the Principal, the school counselors or any of her teachers were at any time made aware of this fact. This highlights the total disconnect between the sponsoring organizations and the U.S. high schools to which they send their participants and one is forced to ask what kind of organization puts an exchange student with a B+ average on “Academic Agreement” without informing the school or any of her teachers. Says Synne’s father Per; “We had just received an email from EF saying that everything was fine and she was doing well in school. Of course, the positive news was sent to us along with the news that Synne had been involved in a car accident. That was probably no coincidence.”
On several occasions, host mother Gidget Vickers acted so threatening and aggressively towards the exchange student that even her teachers became concerned. More than one teacher witnessed Synne’s traumatic last day at Branchville High School; “Gidget Vickers showed up at school, verbally attacked Synne in front of several teachers and students, snatched her handbag and forced her to leave without saying goodbye to her friends and teachers.” After confiscating her phone, Vickers took her home to pack and subsequently drove the 17-year old to Charleston Airport, where the Norwegian exchange student and her luggage were thrown out of the car curbside and left to fend for herself.
According to Synne’s father, her premature repatriation was based on minor episodes and lies by EF and her host family who was just looking for a reason to send her home. “The accusations made against my daughter were subsequently proven false by emails and communications with the Principal and teachers at Branchville High School. Clearly, any serious organization would have taken immediate steps to correct the situation and let her finish the 9 weeks that remained of her school year.”
On the morning of March 23, Synne was told by EF that she had to be on the plane back to Norway that evening or she would be deported. At the point of her repatriation, three local families were willing to host Synne for the remainder of the school year. Torolf Slovik from EF informed the family by email that she would be in the U.S. illegally if she stayed beyond that evening and that her VISA had been cancelled. However, her host-mother Vickers and local EF representative Davis made it abundantly clear around town that anyone who took her in would be charged with harboring an illegal alien. Says Synne; “They were determined to send me home.”
Says Fjellvoll; “EF has gained a reputation for taking swift action only when it comes to sending students home, as was the case with my daughter. The family contacted the U.S. Embassy in Oslo and the U.S. Department of State in Washington and asked them to intervene so that Synne could complete the 9 weeks that remained to her graduation. The Norwegian Embassy in the U.S. was also contacted. However, the family was told that it was a private issue between the student and EF and that they could not do anything.”
The scaremongering that EF spreads regarding the deportation of students is completely untrue and inaccurate. According to Stanley Colvin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of State and supervisor of the J-VISA student exchange programs, foreign nationals that enter on a J-1 visa are “lawfully present” so long as they are in “valid program status”, meaning that they must be successfully pursuing the activities for which they entered the United States, under the sponsorship of a designated Exchange Visitor Program sponsor. If the sponsor withdraws their sponsorship, for cause, then the participant is no longer lawfully present and has thirty days to leave the country. Says Fjellvoll; “Having to leave in thirty days is vastly different to having to leave in a few hours. One month may have permitted us to seek other alternatives so that Synne could have completed her school year.”
When Synne’s case was brought to the attention of the U.S. State Department, they said they were willing to help her reissue her J-VISA provided EF reinstated Synne’s sponsorship. Alternatively, the State Department said they would accept the sponsorship of another exchange organization. Despite several requests both directly from the family as well as a U.S. lawfirm, EF refused to reinstate the sponsorship and finding another exchange organization 9 weeks prior to graduation proved an impossible task.
Under the current system, the student is completely powerless. EF will always side with their host family in any dispute, because any acknowledgement of mistakes on their part would make them liable to lawsuits. The student has absolutely no chance from the outset. The bias of local coordinators, who in many cases place young students with friends or relatives, is another issue some students have been faced with. Norwegian exchange student Synne Fjellvoll’s host mother was a friend of the local EF area representative and had a cell number to her that she refused to give the 17 year old exchange student. The local coordinator consistently ignored Synne’s requests for help.
6 U.S. student exchange companies have been approved by the Norwegian Government’s loan association (Statens Laanekasse) for the purposes of student grant and loans to study abroad. Aside from having to redo a lost year of studies, Norwegian exchange students who are sent home early without graduating, must fully repay all grants they received from Statens Laanekasse. Says Fjellvoll; “Synne’s student exchange and unnecessary repatriation has cost the family at least US$20,000.”
Perks for host families of exchange students include free babysitting and housekeeping services, although foreign exchange students are only permitted to take sporadic jobs. When you call EF’s office in Boston and enquire about taking in a foreign exchange student, they will tell you that the issue of babysitting is “tricky” and that host families are not allowed to force exchange students to babysit. This was certainly not the case with Synne, whose far from sporadic babysitting job was performed under the threat of being sent home.