J-1 Visa Students Face Challenges Living on Cape Cod

Aug 31, 2018

The late night J-1 bus on a street in Orleans. The bus transports students from their late night jobs back to their homes to keep them from walking or biking on the streets late at night.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

It’s just after midnight, and there’s almost no one on the streets of Orleans. But at a strip mall, a group of J-1 students are emerging from their shifts at the local grocery store to catch a special late night bus.

This is part of a three-part series called Cape Cod's Hidden Student Workforce. All of the pieces can be heard here. 

It’s a bus most of us won’t ever ride, because it’s a school bus contracted specifically to run from ten at night to two in the morning for J-1 visa students. Its purpose? To ferry these students from their late-night jobs back to their homes across Orleans, Eastham and Brewster. Most of the students on this bus have worked two or more jobs today, and for them, this is much of their cultural experience.

"So far it’s pretty good. The only thing is that we have to work a lot – I'm working two jobs – so we don’t have time to hang out," Robin Galva Santana, a student from the Dominican Republic, said.

On this particular day, Galva Santana has worked from 7am to 2pm at the Ocean Edge resort as a groundskeeper, and from 5pm to midnight at stop and shop. Despite being busy, for him, the J1 experience has been worthwhile.

"In my case, I haven’t been out of the country, this is my first time," Galva Santana said.   

He's just one of many J-1s who are working 14-plus-hour days while here on the Cape for three to four months. Despite the emphasis on work, the federal government defines the J-1 summer work travel program as a cultural exchange. 

"We strongly believe that this is a cultural exchange, and we believe summer work travel belongs in the state department," said Nathan Arnold, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department. "The participants are meant to interact with Americans to improve their English. The goals of our program are very different from a labor program, and I hope people realize that."

Though Galva Santana is upbeat about his experience in the program, other J-1s see it differently. Khalia Richards is a 22-year-old student from Jamaica, working the closing shift at the Stop and Shop deli counter in Orleans.

"I haven’t done anything but work. On my days off, I sleep, and then I’m back at work again, so it’s like a cycle," Richards said. 

She had imagined having weekends to travel to New York City or Washington DC.

"I at least expected to have some sort of fun... but nah, not here," Richards said.

"We strongly believe that this is a cultural exchange... The participants are meant to interact with Americans to improve their English. The goals of our program are very different from a labor program, and I hope people realize that."

Another big challenge for J-1s in a tourist destination like the Cape is finding housing. Employers are not required to provide housing, and many J-1s find it through Craigslist or volunteer organizations. Though having a job before arrival in the US is a requirement of the visa program, having secure housing is not.

"When they first arrive, they’re a very easy target, especially when they come without housing," said Cathy Boyle, a J-1 volunteer organizer. 

She and her husband Matthew Boyle are part of a volunteer organization on the Cape that puts on cultural events for J-1 students and also helps students find housing.

"We’ve had housing situations where there have been 11 students in a three room house with one bathroom, a man keeping students in the attic, not furnished, no air flow," she said. "And of course, the usual keeping of deposits and threatening students saying they don’t have the same rights as Americans."

Back on the late night bus, Frank Cava, a twenty year old student from the Dominican Republic, is returning home. For him, his lodging is just a place to sleep. He works three jobs, seven days a week, and is finishing up his day after working his shift at Stop and Shop, a little after midnight.

"It's stressful, you know your body feels really tired, but you know it's what we have to do to earn money."

"It's kind of crazy, because you know it’s like working in the morning, and then in the afternoon and night you have to move to the second job," he said. 

His days are hectic, starting with an early morning shift doing maintenance at the Sea Camps summer camp in Brewster and ending with the closing shift at Stop and Shop. He works at the Ocean Edge resort on his days off.

"I think that the rent here is kind of expensive. With one job I think you are unable to pay the rent for a week," he said. 

But he hopes that soon, his hard work will pay off; he plans to use the extra money he makes to travel the country in the 30 days grace period his visa allows before school begins again.

"It’s stressful, you know. Your body feels really tired, but it’s what we have to do to earn money," he said. In just under six hours, he will be back at work again. 

He and others step off the bus onto a dark, empty road in Orleans. And just as quickly as the J-1s emerged, they’re gone again, disappearing into the wooded, misty night to ready themselves for their next jobs. 

--

This is the last story in our series about Cape Cod's hidden student workforce, examining what the J-1 program is, who these students are and their experiences working on the Cape and Islands.