arrest and charge of a 21-year-old Jamaican overseas a week ago has left some tertiary students who participate in a popular United States-based programme uneasy.
However, one chief executive is positive that the J-1 work and travel programme will remain unaffected.
Information from South Carolina in the United States of America is that Britney Wheatle, a J-1 Visa student from Jamaica, was held by police after it was suspected that she had given birth to a baby girl, and had abandoned it in bushes.
South Carolina police said, among other things in its technical description of the situation, that Wheatle was charged with the offence of person who had charge/custody of child places child at risk/harms or abandons.
The baby, in relation to this matter, was reportedly found by a resident who contacted the North Myrtle Beach Police Department around 6:18 pm last Sunday.
The baby was reportedly under a day old, and latest information is that the child is in good health, and continues to receive treatment from state medical officials.
The resident reportedly heard sounds that she thought were coming from an animal in the bushes. However, after carrying out an investigation she realised that it was a newborn baby girl lying in the dirt without clothes or a blanket, a South Carolina-based media outlet reported.
The J-1 visa programme, commonly referred to as work and travel, is an opportunity extended to full-time tertiary students to live and work in the United States during their summer break from college or university. Traditionally, local tertiary students attending all recognisable universities and colleges utilise this opportunity to assist in covering the cost of their tuition.
Students on the programme are allowed temporary work opportunities at fast food restaurants, water parks, among other approved vacancies.
A female student who is currently on the programme told the Jamaica Observer that she believes the incident will impact how Jamaican students wanting to utilise the programme are treated in the future.
“I do think it will affect us. I think going forward we will be required to complete a medical to see if we are pregnant or not, because it seems she was pregnant when she got over here,” said the young woman who shared that this summer marks her third time utilising the opportunity.
“It does reflect badly on us as J-1 overall,” she added.
Additionally, one University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) student told the Sunday Observer that she believes that students will be required to undertake more “invasive” screening before being granted a J-1 visa in the future.
“This incident will definitely negatively affect J-1 students. The process and programme is already onerous on students. More screening processes will likely be added for students wanting to embark on the programme. These might even be invasive, considering the nature of the incident,” said the UTech student.
At the same time, she explained that tertiary students cannot afford to break the law while on the programme, due to the financial importance associated with it.
“The programme is so important to students who need to earn their tuition while having new experiences. It’s sad that we’re held to such a high standard when we visit the US. But because of this, none of us can afford to break the law – not just for ourselves but for all of us. As you slip, you slide,” said the student.
Meanwhile, Deshawn Cooke, a graduate student at The University of the West Indies, Mona (The UWI), told the Sunday Observer that the incident has highlighted a greater need for emotional support for students utilising the J-1 programme.
While the incident has garnered the attention of international news outlets, Cooke pointed out that other students must not be penalised for the unfortunate alleged actions of 21-year-old Wheatle.
“At the present moment, I am deeply concerned about, not only the well-being of the infant, but the mother as well. Honestly, I feel it’s important for us to note that this is an isolated case and doesn’t represent the intentions of the broader Jamaican community on the J-1 work and travel programme. This programme is historically designed to foster growth, cultural exchange, and international ties, with the majority of participants upholding responsibility and respect for the host country’s laws,” said Cooke.
“What this incident does though is it highlights the need for robust support systems for programme participants, including clear guidance on local laws and emotional support even,” the graduate student added.
According to Cooke, it is his hope that other students are not affected by the incident.
“As a past participant who would have benefited from this programme first-hand for three years, my hope is that this event won’t hinder future Jamaican participation. We must uphold positive cross-cultural relations and responsible conduct,” he said.
“My thoughts are with the child and the student involved. I trust that compassion, responsibility, and understanding should guide discussions on this incident’s implications, until all facts of the case are known to the public,” Cooke continued.
Mark Foster, CEO of SWAT Production Limited, a J-1 travel agency that operates from The UWI, Mona campus, told the Sunday Observer that the incident, while “extreme”, will not affect Jamaican students wanting to engage the programme in the future.
“This will not affect J-1. It is a very extreme situation but we have already had situations that were extreme and dramatic involving students. There was a situation with five students being arrested for shoplifting, that made headline news and it did not change the demands for Jamaican students. The programme has survived,” said Foster.
Noting the viability of the J-1 programme, Foster explained that he has only ever seen one incident affecting students’ ability to embark on their summer jobs overseas.
“The only incident that affected the demand for J-1 students during my 20 years of being involved with the programme was during COVID when Donald Trump stopped the process of offering J-1 visas. That summer we sent about 500 students who had already acquired their visas,” said Foster.
The CEO said that tertiary students should not be alarmed, as the programme will continue to provide opportunities.
“That one student will be dealt with individually and the programme will continue,” Foster told the Sunday Observer.