After visa denial cancels exchange program, Darien High reschedules, restructures April China visit

Darien and Chinese students during their November 2017 Darien High School visit.

After students from the Quindao School in China were denied visas to visit Darien twice in the beginning of the school year, the school district said that meant the reciprocal visit by Darien studentswas also off the table. However, recently, interim Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon told The Darien Times that a visit to China by students who were part of the previous exchang program was back on — albeit in a different format.

While previously, both Chinese and Darien students stayed with families and got to experience the home life of their international counterparts, the new trip will focus on more cultural experiences and visits. Though different, it will still give Darien students a chance to keep the planned China visit on the schedule. Landon said the trip to coincide with the April school break.

Students from the Quindao School were denied visas to travel to Connecticut for the Darien High School Chinese exchange program in August and then again in September. After the second denial, Landon told The Darien Times that the school informed him they would not reapply.

“No one really knows what happened — with the U.S. Consulate or the Chinese government,” he said.

This is the first time in the 16-year history of the Darien-China Youth Exchange program, visas were denied to Chinese students — now twice.

The students were originally denied visas in August for the program that was set to occur at the end of September.

“It is my understanding that the U.S. Consulate in Beijing has rejected the visa application from the Qingdao School for travel to the United States,” Darien High School Principal Ellen Dunn told The Darien Times in September.

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Both the school and The Darien Times reached out to the offices of both U.S. Rep Jim Himes (D-4th) and U.S. Senator Chris Murphy’s for further explanation or assistance.

Himes’ office said at the time they called called Darien schools to “let them know our assessment and gave them the resources to identify which student visas the Chinese students should apply for.”

Patrick Malone, director of communications for Himes, also told The Darien Times at the time of the second denial that “the Congressman is also planning to call the U.S. consulate in China to ask them the expedite the new applications.” It is unclear if that call was made given the decision by the school not to reapply.

“Obviously, this is not the outcome that anyone wanted,” Malone told The Darien Times Wednesday.

“We are very upset and hope this action does not forecast the end of this very valuable exchange program,” Landon said after the second visa denial.

Malone explained the reason for the denial, which appears to be due to the extremely detailed type of visa application.

“Our understanding is that they’re being denied because the tourist visas that they applied for don’t allow for the visa holder to spend significant time in classrooms where any students present are receiving credit, whether that’s students from the host nation or the individuals visiting,” Malone said.

“Darien, we think, is understandably surprised because these visas have been accepted for many years and the consulate seems to be interpreting them more strictly this year,” Malone said.

Laura Maloney, deputy communications director for Chris Murphy, told the Darien Times that “right after the visas were denied, our office was in touch with the school and the Superintendent, and we are committed to helping them with however they decide to proceed. We also reached out to the State Department on their behalf.”

The Darien-China Youth Exchange program began in 2001 with the help of a grant from the U.S. State Department. The program is meant to engage students from Darien High School and Qingdao #58 High School of China’s Shandong Province in an educational and cultural exchange. Prior to 2007, DHS was partnered with Shanghai #3 Girls’ School.

Chinese students typically arrive in Darien at the start of the school year, staying for a week or more. In addition to experiencing life in Darien, students travel to New York City and Washington D.C., to gain a better grasp of American life. Darien’s students complete the exchange each April, staying with their host families for three weeks.

An email from the The Darien Times to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was responded to with a standard informational email on visa information.

Immigration policies have become more strictly enforced and stringent, and in some cases controversial, since President Donald J. Trump took office January 2017.

Darien High School teacher Lynda Sorensen, who has since taken over the alternative learning program Fitch Academy, said a similar situation happened over the summer when the high school was hoping to have a yoga teacher from China teach.
Often when applicants are turned down it is because the “U.S. feels they might stay in the U.S. and not return,” she said.

Sorensen noted that the country is in “a different political climate now.”

“The denial of that visa is the denial of the spirit of cultural exchange and an educational opportunity for understanding at the time we need it the most,” she said.

In September, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson told The Darien Times she hasn’t “been brought into the process so cannot comment.”

It seems clear that the China exchange program will not take place in the 2018-19 school year. Will the Chinese students attempt to obtain visas next year?

“No one really knows at this point,” Landon said.

editor@darientimes.com