So you want to bring a Ugandan student to the United States…

Originally posted at:

Patty and Sailas, second UCU intern who came to Ohio in 2015 (Photo taken at Colline Hotel in Mukono, Uganda, in 2017)

By Patty Huston-Holm  (May 2018)

Many well-meaning, first-time visitors to Uganda offer locals an invitation to the United States. They want to show them our country in a way that they have shown us theirs.

But Ugandans can’t just hop on a plane and fly to America. It takes understanding, persistence and relationship building. These three actions surround one word – the visa. And not everybody can get one.

I am no a visa expert.  Truth is that until 2013, I knew nothing about it except that I didn’t need a visa to go to Europe or Haiti and since 2009 I had been plopping down $50 to $100 to buy one for myself to get into Uganda. In 2013, I had a vision to bring a Uganda Christian University (UCU) student to Ohio for an internship.  More than 100 hours of nail-biting, head-scratching, sleepless nights of research and paperwork later, my husband and I had a UCU-selected, young woman on the plane and headed across the Atlantic. For three months and during the USA polar vortex winter, she lived with us while she interned and learned in her career path of communications.

We have since had a second student here to expand his social work experience and are now working on a third who wants to make a difference in Uganda’s community development and health education.  While not as time-intensive as that first one, the process still requires understanding of what is required, persistence to get it done and building relationships with all involved.

I’ve gotten smarter and am passing this onto you.

The main type of visa to enter the United States is for non-immigrants. The foremost categories under the non-immigrant visa are B-1 for visiting, F-1 for studying, and J-1 that encompasses cultural exchange and professional development.  I chose the J-1, which is under the Department of State, because it is most purposeful and resume-building for a university student. There are nearly 90 American J-1 sponsor organizations with different stipulations (Some do not handle religious institutions, most require employers to have at least five full-time employees, etc.).  The other two “sponsors” are host parents and host organizations. They need cultural as well as financial and time expectation understanding. Selection of the organization, student and J-1 sponsor can occur on parallel tracks, but the organization and student need J-1 Visa documents before they can begin providing their information. The J-1 sponsor provides the necessary electronic files and vets the student and host organization.

The J-1 provides the groundwork to get the student into the United States. There is another visa required to get the student out of Uganda. (See Persistence and Relationship Building for more on this.)

Every process needs a driver.  That driver, often the host parent sponsor, needs to be persistent to keep everybody – host organization, student, student’s university supervisor and J-1 sponsor – informed, energized and moving on independent and parallel tracks to meet paperwork deadlines and financial responsibilities. In concert with the university, the organization creates a training plan for what the student will do when he/she gets here, makes sure that plan aligns with the student’s academic field of study and determines if/how much the student will be paid.  In addition to a passport, the student provides a CV/resume that includes his/her reason for wanting the internship. Skype and phone interviews take place between the J-1 sponsor and the student as well as between the J-1 sponsor and internship sponsor.

Once the J-1 Visa is approved and the flight booked from Entebbe to the USA, the student applies for another visa to get out of the country. That application occurs in person at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala.

Relationship Building
When my husband and I stumbled on Greenheart Exchange in Chicago as our first American J-1 organization sponsor in 2013 – and it was a good experience – we looked no further. We have used them every time. Likewise, I have a relationship with Uganda Christian University and many of its staff.  Relationships with visa-approving agents in Kampala, Uganda, are more difficult to forge, but certainly help.  It is not uncommon to travel through the capital city’s traffic mess with what you believe to be everything needed for an appointment to get the country’s exit visa, only to be rejected the first time.

Organization sponsors are different each time. Building this rapport requires investment of time before and after the student arrives. For me, this connection includes an offer of cultural training. Likewise, the student needs to be prepared for lifestyle differences in the United States and for the re-entry to Uganda. Student assurance of safety and caring before and after arrival is essential. To further open doors for other potential students and to deepen their own relationships, the intern writes appreciation notes to the host organization, host parents and others who were key to the experience.

In short, be purposeful and try not to get discouraged. I have seen first-hand how these experiences benefit people in both countries. And don’t forget to pray.

For more information on the J-1 Visa, go to For more information on Greenheart, go to

Sarah Lagot Odwong, our first UCU student intern who came to Ohio in 2014, learning to love dogs as Americans do. (Photo taken at the central Ohio home of Clark and Emily Buck in 2014)

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