Students from the Quindao School were again denied visas last week to travel to Connecticut for the Darien High School Chinese exchange program. Interim Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon told The Darien Times that the school informed him Tuesday they will not reapply.
As a result, Landon says Darien High School has canceled plans for the Darien High School students to go to China as well.
“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.
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.
Though The Darien Times was unable to speak directly with Himes, his director of communications, Patrick Malone said after looking into the issue, it “became clear that the visas for the Chinese students were going to be denied again after the appeal.”
Himes called Darien schools Thursday to “let them know our assessment and gave them the resources to identify which student visas the Chinese students should apply for,” Malone said.
“The Congressman is also planning to call the U.S. consulate in China to ask them the expedite the new applications. Given the timetable that has been laid out for us by U.S. government officials, we’re confident that the students will still be able to make the trip,” Malone said last week.
Landon did not seem to share that confidence.
On Friday, Landon let The Darien Times know the U.S. Consulate in Beijing once again denied the Quingdao students visas for entry into the United States that morning.
“It appears that this year’s visit to Darien may not occur at all,” he said at the time.
“We are very upset and hope this action does not forecast the end of this very valuable exchange program,” Landon added.
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.
On Monday, Laura Maloney, deputy communications director for Murphy, told The Darien Times they “are looking into this. Will be in touch.” There has been no further email since.
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.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson told The Darien Times she hasn’t “been brought into the process so cannot comment.”
“We have been in contact with Darien schools and they have informed us that the Chinese students have decided not to reapply. Obviously, this is not the outcome that anyone wanted,” Malone told The Darien Times Wednesday.
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.