An announcement was made last week by the sponsoring bodies of the J1 programme that students applying for a J1–Summer Work and Travel (SWT) visa to the USA will face increased difficulties. It was announced on Thursday 12th November that students now must have a job secured before they travel. Last year approximately 7,000 Irish students availed of the J1-SWT.

Fears have been raised that this could see a decrease of up to 80 per cent in the number of people applying for the visa. Speaking to the University Observer, third year medicine student Laura Worthington, who travelled to San Diego California on a J1 last summer, noted that looking for a job beforehand could make the experience more stressful for students.  “It felt pointless even trying to get a job before going over for so many reasons, we didn’t know what area in San Diego we’d be staying in as we hadn’t sorted out accommodation yet, or where would hire J1 students or what was even there to apply to.” Worthington also notes that it would be “so much harder to go if you have to have a job lined up beforehand.”

The change originated from a number of sponsoring agencies within the USA that vet and sponsor J1 participants. These agencies provide students with the documentation to travel to the country. This is an issue also raised by Wothington who explains that not all of her friends had secured the same jobs throughout their stay. She states that “some of my friends never even managed to secure a proper job the whole time we were there and relied on cash-in-hand jobs to get by which caused endless problems with our sponsors.”

A press release from the US embassy explained that the new procedures to receive a visa could protect students. It notes “preplacement procedures for J1 SWT students are already in effect and enjoying success in nearly every country in the world. The preplacement requirement is designed to ensure greater safety and security of participants, greater compliance, and a more rewarding cultural experience in the United States.”

John B. Murphy, a representative of the embassy also defended the changes as something that may benefit students in the long-run. “These independent sponsoring agencies have communicated to us that their goal is to create the safest and most rewarding J-1 experience possible. Pre-placement procedures have already been successfully implemented in nearly every country worldwide,” he says.

The embassy has stated that they do not believe the change will see a reduction in numbers though it will make it safer for students.  Murphy notes that “we fully expect that Ireland will remain a top sending country of J-1 SWT participants.”

Worthington highly recommends the experience, however she highlights the difficulty students may face in finding a job before they reach the USA.  “I had e-mailed, I think about 50-60 places before I went over and got two responses for an interview when I arrived…The connections I have from spending a summer there would give me a head start on getting a job, I could probably even go back to the job I had last summer,” she says.

Companies such as SAYIT and USIT offer programmes that help students find work and accommodation in the USA. Other such organisations also offer this help to students. Murphy explains that pre-placement schemes already exist and have been utilised by many students.  “Sponsors have seen that pre-placement has increased well-being and safety of J-1 SWT participants and has improved the participant experience overall,” he says.

2016 will see the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the J1-SWT visa programme. Since its inception nearly 150,000 people have used it to travel to the USA.