Sun | Jun 16, 2024


Students in limbo trying to recoup payments after deal with agency falls through

Published:Friday | May 24, 2024 | 12:12 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter

The International Student Affairs and Travel Services (ISATS) is facing severe criticism and allegations of mismanagement after failing to deliver on the work and travel experience paid for by several university students over the last two years....

The International Student Affairs and Travel Services (ISATS) is facing severe criticism and allegations of mismanagement after failing to deliver on the work and travel experience paid for by several university students over the last two years.

Further, the company, which says it offers “top-quality educational services” to its clients, has failed to refund some students who signed up for the popular programme many use to cover the cost of their university fees and tuition.

Three of the “frustrated” students, who contacted The Gleaner, said collectively, they paid US$5,249 or $808,000 to ISATS to participate in the programme that would pair them with an overseas employer for the summer.

The students, who have asked not to be identified, said that since signing up for the programme, they have dealt with poor communication, empty promises, and what they perceive to be “dishonesty”.

However, ISATS has denied that it did not provide service to the students, stating that circumstances beyond its control impacted efforts to complete the process.

Still, the students maintain that ISATS’ inactions have caused mental turmoil.

“I am currently in debt because the money I used to pay for the programme, I borrowed it from someone,” one of the students told The Gleaner.

“I could face legal action because I haven’t paid the person back as yet. I may also not be able to start next semester because I would have to use the funds I have now to clear my debt, so I wouldn’t have enough money to start school for the following semester. In addition, it has caused immense mental and emotional distress,” the student added.

She said ISATS has not refunded the sum of US$1,910, or J$294,000, paid last year and has stopped communicating.

Financial strain

Another student, who disclosed that she paid US$1,700, or J$261,800, in September 2022, accused ISATS of poor communication and making false promises.

She said the ordeal has put a financial strain on her and has deprived her of other opportunities.

A third student told The Gleaner that she sought the services of ISATS in April 2023 when the company opened late slots for students who wished to go on the programme.

She said she paid US$1,639, or J$252,406, a month later but since that time, there has been strained communication.

The student said she has had to visit ISATS’ Lismore Avenue office in St Andrew several times for updates on her application. She said, otherwise, repeated requests for responses are “ignored”.

“This negligence on their part has played out in me not being able to go on the programme last year as the embassy often discontinues interview dates after a certain period,” the student said.

She said she applied for a refund in November and was promised that this would be satisfied by January, but that deadline was further pushed to March 31.

“Now they are stating that they are unable to honour their commitment,” she said.

“This has severely impacted me as I would have taken out a loan of $450,000, which, along with other school expenses, I now have to shoulder independently in lieu of said refund,” the student told The Gleaner.

The Gleaner contacted ISATS on Monday and was told that the company would respond to the complaints in an email.

Up to yesterday evening, The Gleaner had not received the response from ISATS.

ISATS has also not responded to an email sent by this newspaper.

A representative who identified himself as Aiden via telephone said one of the complainants who spoke with The Gleaner was interviewed by a sponsor last month and that her paperwork was currently being processed.

The student applied in 2022.

The ISATS representative said he was not clear why the student had been left feeling cheated.

Further, he said the other students were affected by the closure of the United States Embassy in Kingston, which, he argued, the company had “no control” over.

“Those things would have ultimately impacted students’ anticipation of the programme,” he said.

“Embassy closure, employers declining applicants, there are multiple layers to participation. So probably, one of those factors would have impacted her and not necessarily from the agency’s side,” he added.

He said the applicants are in a queue for a refund but said that several applicants were ahead of them.

“All of them would have received services from ISATS. It isn’t a case where they paid money and did not receive any type of communication. They would have been processed by us. You were, perhaps, misinformed … . It’s just that last year, the embassy was closed, and it was beyond our control to have her participate,” he said, referencing one of the applicants.

The Gleaner contacted the US Embassy in Kingston, which said on Wednesday that it has routine visa appointments scheduled for all regular business days.

“We have not been unexpectedly closed or discontinued appointments. COVID-era backlogs have been eliminated, and since late 2023, the appointment wait time is 28-45 days,” it said via email.

Furthermore, the embassy said it does not have a cut-off date for processing work-related visas, adding that applicants are encouraged to monitor the online appointment system for availability.

It said applicants who are unable to realise their intended travel may reschedule to facilitate future opportunities as visa fee payments remain valid for one year.

The embassy said that in 2024, it waived interview requirements for qualified J-1 exchange visitors, opening hundreds of additional appointment slots.

From January 1 through May 22, the embassy said it issued more than 9,000 J-1 visas, an increase of more than 1,000 during the same period last year.

“Embassy Kingston prioritises and increases the number of available appointments for J-1 exchange visitor interviews during the months leading up to the Summer Work Travel and Camp Counsellor seasons,” the embassy said.

Additionally, it said it did not have specific scheduling arrangements with individual employment agencies.