Numbers still low, but local agencies grateful for BridgeUSA uptick

THOUGH the number of students participating in this year’s BridgeUSA programme is nowhere near pre-pandemic level, some local placement agencies are grateful for the upward trend after things plummeted last year amid COVID-19.

“It is a better year. We had a financial loss, but the gain is that participants were able to travel and that is good. Quite a lot of the persons who deferred [last year] have travelled, and we still have persons waiting on the [United States] Embassy dates [for interviews],” Charmaine Hutchinson, president of the Jamaica Association of Employment and Cultural Exchange, told the Jamaica Observer.

She also shared that all the placement agencies listed on the website of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona have more exchange visitors participating in BridgeUSA this year.

Formerly the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Programme, the exchange visitor programme brand identity was changed to BridgeUSA by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State following an executive order under the Donald Trump Administration. The current name for the cultural exchange programme reportedly underscores the aim to build enduring bridges of friendship between people and nations.

Hutchinson, who is also the CEO of placement agency JOYST Youth Exchange International, said more than 200 of its exchange visitors have already left for the United States.

“We have a lot of them who have gone to South Carolina, Maryland, Texas, Maine, Denver, and Massachusetts,” she said.

Representatives of placement agencies International Travel and Cultural Exchange and Overseas Work and Travel Agency also shared similar sentiments.

Donalie Francis, programme officer at Overseas Work and Travel Agency, who pointed out that 111 students have already departed for the United States through its placement, told the Observer: “We didn’t have any programme last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, we didn’t have much persons registering due to the uncertainty, [but] most of our participants are already overseas and others are waiting on embassy dates.”

Meanwhile Poye Robinson, CEO of International Travel and Cultural Exchange, who praised the efforts of the US Embassy to accommodate agencies and students by offering interviews since April.

“The students are grateful for the opportunity and are looking forward to the programme,” Robinson said.

Pointing out, too, that the numbers are still extremely low as approximately 150 students have already left for the programme through his agency, he said almost 600 students would participate annually.

“So, you can see the huge difference, that’s not even 50 per cent capacity. When you compare this year to last year, it’s a huge difference. We are one of a few agencies who had students who went on the programme,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, loan agency Tarpa Corporation Limited, which lends money to people interested in participating in the exchange programme, has said it has seen a 27 per cent increase in the number of applicants this year.

“We have seen a growth in applications, but students are definitely more cautious now, but also eager and proactive because they do not want to miss out on the opportunity to travel this year,” the loan agency’s CEO and co-founder Nico Carridice told the Observer. “Hence, what we have done is to ensure we keep our customers abreast of the current news and updates [in relation to] the direction of the 2021 season.

“We have made provisions for our customers who were not able to travel from last year, Some of which — instead of cancelling with their agencies decided to defer — are leaving or have left for this season. As for current customers, we have reduced the interest applied by 25 per cent as well as given a grace period to those who have requested it,” he added.

For the next season, which starts in August, Hutchinson is hoping that the cultural exchange programme will be more successful.

“We are still hopeful because anything can change. The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing but we have navigated this year cautiously and successfully, as best as we could, and I think we just have that as the basis to move forward next year. My hope is that applicants will be more open and willing to do the programme next year. All of us have to adjust to the changes as life exists outside of COVID-19,” she said.

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