Understanding the US J-1 Summer Work & Travel Program: The Truths and Myths

The J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program is increasingly becoming a popular alternative for university students seeking an opportunity to financially assist with funding their tuition. This increased popularity however is not in keeping with what the true purpose of the program is about. The fact is that a number of students seem misguided as to what the real purpose is and often end up with unreasonable expectations, that only serve as a recipe for disappointment. In our experience, students who are well informed with reasonable expectations are often the ones that do extremely well and who normally return up to three or four times to do the program. With the increased popularity that this venture is now receiving, it would be worthwhile to examine some of the truths and unfortunate myths about the program. This we hope will help to better prepare students and parents interested in exploring the benefits that this cultural exchange opportunity has to offer.

Myth:

The purpose of the program is to make enough money so I can pay my school fee and other school related expenses.

Truth:

The purpose of the program is to provide tertiary students an opportunity to travel to the U.S. for the summer, so they can learn about U.S. culture and earn valuable work experience, while working to cover their daily living expenses. Students not only engage in the U.S. culture, but are also exposed to learning the cultures of other international university students they live and work with.  This cultural exchange experience allows students to better understand and appreciate the cultural differences  of persons they interface with.

Income that students are able to save from participating in the program is just one of the benefits and must never be mistaken as the main objective for doing the program. Students must realise that how much a student will save depends on several variables, such as how much their earning, number of hours worked, cost of rent, utilities and other monthly personal expenses (such as food, toiletries, etc), whether the job comes with special incentives (such as free or discounted meals, free housing, special bonuses, possibility for overtime, etc.) and the possibility to find a second job.

 

Myth:

I can’t do the program if I’m in my first or final year.

 

Fact:

Students are qualified to participate in the program regardless of the year they are in, once they’re doing a full time degree, associate degree or master’s program, falls within the 18-30 age range, and has a GPA of 2.0 or above.

Myth:

I have to take out a loan in order to finance payment for the program fees:

Truth:

There are several options available to students for funding the program, which doesn’t entail placing themselves or their parents in debt. One must remember that the program is primarily for cultural exchange and there are no guarantees as to how much money a student will make from the program, since there are too many variables that can affect the final outcome. What if unforeseen circumstances cause you to cancel before leaving and you only get back 75% of what was paid, because you were already processed in a job? You would not have the money to pay back the entire loan amount. Therefore taking out loans to finance the program is not recommended. A preferred option is to get someone or a company to sponsor the program for you. Every year we see students who receive donations from family members, friends, their MP, the church or private companies. We’ve even supported students who host events such as a fish fry or a cake sale to raise funds and these are all tried and proven methods that don’t result in the student placing themselves in debt.

Myth:

I don’t need to get another visa to travel on the program, since I already have a visitor’s visa.

Truth:

To travel on the program, students are required to have a J-1 visa which allows the student to work while overseas. A regular visitor’s visa (B-1/B-2) is primarily for visiting purposes and does not allow the holder to work while overseas.

Myth:

I expect to be working over 40 hours every week once I arrive in the U.S.

Truth:

Usually jobs don’t guarantee students 40 hours weekly. What the contract normally states is an “average” number of hours weekly that the student can expect to get, which means they can get more or less the amount stipulated. Some contracts go as far as to explain that the months of May and June are normally much slower than for July through to Labour Day, the first Monday in September, which is one of the busiest holidays in America.

Myth:

Agencies are a big rip off when students don’t get placed in jobs and end up having to cancel from the program.

Truth:

It is very unfortunate when a student pays their program fee but end up not being able to participate in the program because the agency has no more placements or has reached their limits with work permits. It is however important to first understand how the program works. First, in order for agencies to offer students placements, we have to pay for what is called a work permit or DS-2019 form. The DS-2019 form is obtained from the overseas sponsor. Each Sponsor has a set number of work permits that they can issue each year, both for Self-Placement and Job Assist. Therefore local agencies are also constrained as to how many permits they can receive, which ultimately impacts on how many Self-Placed and Job Assist positions they can offer each season. Sometimes agencies are able to request additional permits from their Sponsoring Partners but this is not always the case. This is why sometimes agencies have to close off earlier than they intend to, if they see where the number of students they’ve registered have reached the quota that they have for that year.

It is therefore in the student’s best interest to register and make their program fee deposits as early in the season as possible, so as to avoid spaces running out on them, and to also select a job from the job list once they come out and not procrastinate. Too many students wait until after February to sign up, but that time line is too risky. Some programs accept registration all year round, so students don’t need to wait until so late to register. For those agencies however, registration normally closes off between February and March for the current season. Thereafter, any incoming registration is for the following season. Other programs resume registration during August or September and continue right through to March, but again the later students join the program, the more risky it will be for them to receive placement, even if they’ve paid all the necessary fees.

If in the unfortunate even a student has to cancel, they are entitled to the amount that was deposited, less any associated fees accumulated by the Agency, which is normally mentioned in the contract. Students should therefore ENSURE they read the Agency’s contract thoroughly before agreeing to any terms and conditions.

Myth:

Agencies are dishonest for withholding an applicant’s money until at the end of the season, even when they don’t get to do the program.

Truth:

All agencies should have a contract in place that speaks to the agency’s refund policies. There are occasions where the student will be entitled to a full refund, but there are occasions where based on how far the student is in the program, and taking into consideration the work the agency has done up to that point, it would be impossible for the student to expect a full refund.

Too often students wait until some unfortunate incident happens, before they inquire as to the agency’s policy regarding refund. It’s normally not until that point, that questions are raised about the agency’s refund policy. However such questions should be raised before and not after, so decisions can be made from early out as to what agency is best suited for the student to register with. Parents or Guardians should also ensure they also take a look at the contract that students are agreeing to, since more often than not, it is their funds that get tied up in the process.

Being licensed under the Ministry of Labour, the Agency also has to be compliant with the refund policy in keeping with the Employment Agencies Act. While it is encouraged by the Ministry for students to be refunded once they have to discontinue from the program, agencies are allowed to disburse refunds commencing August 15th, so students who require the money for school can receive it in time for the new semester. What students don’t know, is that roughly 60% of the money collected from students go to our oversees partners for payment of their DS-2019, insurance, SEVIS, placement fees, ect. So agencies have a small mark up to work with to cover expenses for the year. Some agencies that only specialize in J-1 recruitment, have a summer long period with little income to cover expenses, so it is extremely important especially for those agencies to have a particular time frame within which refunds are disbursed.

Myth:

My performance in school doesn’t have any bearing on my participation on the program

Truth:

A student’s performance in school is actually an important factor that the embassy considers when making a decision on granting the J-1 visa. It’s therefore important for students to maintain a good GPA. Some agencies set a standard of a minimum GPA requirement such as (2.0), while others don’t. Experience however shows that the students with low GPA’s has a lesser chance of having their visa granted. It would therefore be in a student’s best interest to work hard at getting good grades, since a transcript is required by the embassy, and will ultimately have bearing on the granting of the visa.

Myth:

I would prefer working in the city

Truth:

Jobs in the city can sometimes come with a higher cost of living. Most jobs are also normally sourced in the Upstate areas rather than in the town since vacancies are more popular in those areas. Students should therefore not only base their selection of jobs on the location, but also on the costs associated with living in that area.

Myth:

I have no rights in a foreign country

Truth:

Foreign nationals do have rights in the U.S. similar to the rights that US workers enjoy. These rights include:

  • The right to report abuse without retaliation
  • The right to seek justice in US Courts
  • The right to be treated fairly
  • The right to be paid fairly
  • The right to request help from unions and labour rights groups

To report any abuse or mistreatment, students may call a special hotline 1-866-283-9090 or contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Centre in the United States at 1-888-373-7888.

Myth:

It is not practical to gain this “cultural experience” that they talk about when you have to be working 6-7 days per week.

Truth:

Students are entitled to 2 days off. Even if they are offered to go in and work on their day off it is a choice that they can refuse. It should be remembered that the main essence of the program is to gain cultural exchange, and so students should engage in different activities to facilitate this. You don’t need to go to a museum or wait on your employer to coordinate a trip to have a cultural exchange experience. By simply cooking a local dish for your roommate whose from another country, or engaging in volunteer activities in the community where you live, so you can become familiar with the residents in the area, are both great ways to experience cultural exchange.

Myth:

Agencies are just out to fleece students out of their money. So the work and travel is just a cover up for a massive money laundering business.

Truth:

In order for an employment agency to operate in Jamaica, they must be licensed by the Ministry of Labour. Every year agencies have to reapply to the Ministry for the renewal of their license. If an agent has not been compliant with the Ministry’s regulations, it is within the power of the ministry to decline that agency’s application for renewal. To date the Ministry has on record 49 registered agencies that conduct overseas job placement services. While it is unfortunate that a few agencies have in the past been non-compliant, it must not be overlooked the efforts of other agencies who have been in this industry, some for ten years or more, and who have significantly contributed to the personal development of thousands of our university students.

Myth:

I don’t need to go through an Agency in order to go on the program

Truth:

The J-1 programme requires for students to have a US sponsor in order to qualify for the J-1 visa. Only US organisations can be J-1 sponsors. Normally when students contact the sponsors directly to do the program, more often than not, the student is directed to a local agency that the Sponsor is in partnership with. The role of the local agency is that they enter contracts with the US Sponsors so the Sponsors can provide the work permit and in some cases the jobs, while the local agencies do the recruiting so they can find students to fill the placements. Since the sponsors are in partnership with the local agency, it would be extremely difficult for the student to do the program on their own without going through a local agency.

Myth:

The main thing about the Summer Program is work. There’s nothing else really in it to gain.

Truth:

There are tremendous benefits that can be gained from the program. Not only are students able to experience personal development by making more mature decisions such as setting monthly budgets and paying bills, but they also get to relate to groups of different culture as well as their own, form new friendships, internationalize their resumes and gain valuable work and travel experience. Countless times we see a reserved student come in our office to register, but upon checking in with us at the end of the program, we encounter a more mature and confident individual.

Some Work and Travel companies actually have Sponsors such as CCI Greenheart who encourage students to participate in Volunteer activities. These volunteers also benefit from monetary incentives provided by the Sponsor, that’s given to the participant to go towards local volunteer initiatives when they return home.

Myth:

Agencies don’t care about the students.

Truth:

Our students’ interests are our primary concern. Agencies meet with the Ministry of Labour, the universities and occasionally even with the embassy to discuss the program and how better we can make the program for students. A number of agencies undertake measures that can make the program more accessible to everyone by offering discounted fees, flexible payment terms, ensuring students are safe while overseas by doing site visits, maintaining monthly check in with students and ensuring that monthly check ins are maintained with the Sponsor as well, having 24 hour emergency phone access during the summer and maintaining contact with parents once there are any medical emergencies that may arise. A number of agencies actually has workers who themselves were students that benefitted from the J-1 Overseas Summer Program, so we have first-hand knowledge what it is like travelling on the program and some of the challenges that can be encountered.

On the flip side it is the agency that suffers tremendously from students who behaved badly on the program. This occurs when students have unreasonable expectations and make un-necessary complaints, stealing on the job and having bad work ethics. Fortunately, this accounts for less than 5%, and the fact that 90% of the students who go on the program return to participate in other seasons, shows that the program must make sense for the most part. If a student encounters an issue, SWAT assists with following up with our Sponsors to ensure the issues are resolved in a timely manner. The same approach also follows for other agencies. It must also be said that if we are sending hundreds of students each summer, it is impossible for every student to get a flawless experience as there must be room for human error, since no one is perfect. Employers sometime don’t get the business they expect and so sometime students are relocated. Students sometime don’t get the first jobs interviewed for and so they have to be interviewed two or three times before finding another job. This however is nothing uncommon to the regular job market.

What this therefore comes down to, is that all parties involved have a responsibility to ensure the success of the program. Agencies are responsible to ensure the best interest of the student is protected at all times, students are responsible to ensure that they are partaking in the program for the right reasons and will not bring disrepute to the program, based on poor work ethics and Sponsors with the help of local agencies, have the responsibility to further enhance the growth of cultural exchange through the development of the J-1 Summer Overseas Program, which has for so many years benefitted thousands of tertiary Jamaican students.

Comments can be emailed to swatinfo@studentsworkntravel.com

Author: Monica Foster, Managing Director, Students’ Work and Travel Ltd (SWAT Ltd)

Comments (0)

Leave Comment