2018-09-20 / Opinion

J-1 Students, a Missed Opportunity


Last week, Igor Išpanovic, a J-1 visa student from Serbia, wrote in our pages about his summer experience working and living in Newport.

Our meeting was quite by accident: a friend mentioned to us in late July that he knew of a journalism student, and asked if we would be interested in talking with him.

Igor came to the Newport This Week office the following week, talked to the staff and had such interesting viewpoints about the media and “fake news” that we decided to write about him and also assign him a guest article for publication in the paper. It was a win-win: we received great content for our readers from an interesting perspective; Igor earned his first byline, a veritable feather in his young journalist’s cap.

In his guest feature, Igor touched on the process of obtaining the visa, his work in Newport for four months as a busser and bar back, and his reasons for choosing the City by the Sea. One of the 21-year-old Serbian’s most interesting musings, however, described how his summer landlord, Rui Reis, taught him the importance of kindness and generosity. They had conversations about Serbia and America and the opportunities they had to learn from each other.

In a follow-up interview with NTW, Reis told us how he flies abroad each spring to meet perspective J-1 students and prep them for their upcoming journey to the United States. “I love to travel and meet people,” Reis said. “It softens the experience for them. I give them the lowdown of what to expect.”

It’s no question that area restaurants, hotels and other services need these students’ help during the busy months. One local business owner mentioned that J-1 students provided crucial staffing for his business this summer, and were especially invaluable after mid-August when most of his college student employees had returned to school.

Another person we talked to said one of his J-1s was studying dentistry, but did not think about calling his dentist and asking if the student could talk with him or maybe at least see how an American dentist’s office is set up.

It’s true, J-1 students help fill a critical need for stateside businesses, but they also have the chance to learn about life in America. By traveling to Europe to meet these students, Reis went above and beyond, but many business owners in Newport, indeed in many J-1 destinations across the country, miss opportunities to help provide context to our young and impressionable guests.

These are potential learning situations, glimpses into American life that can offer value in addition to their work as a server, a retail sales clerk or busser if just a little more time went into the opportunity.

Invariably, next year more J-1 students will return and, while it takes time and effort, we hope local employers will take the initiative to find out from the students what field they are pursuing. Perhaps they could introduce our visitors to someone locally, even if it’s just for a conversation.

Besides a memory of our beautiful coast line, wouldn’t it be great if the J-1 students who came to the island this summer left with a more meaningful memory of learning about their field of study or talking with a mentor? Maybe we as a community can form a support group so that they can learn more about our world and we can learn more about theirs.

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