Category Archives: United Students Association

2006 Aug 28: Students Land in US without Schools, Hosts

By Sonia Moghe | Posted: Monday, August 28, 2006 12:00 am | My Plainview

MANSFIELD, Texas — South Korean student Jun Young Kim simply wanted to go to a public high school in America and practice English with friends.

But when he got to America, after his family paid nearly $13,000 to get him into a cultural exchange program, the 16-year-old found that he could not attend a local public school as promised. Then he learned he had to pay even more money to attend a private school.

“I don’t know why they need money like that much,” said Kim, whose stay with a Pennsylvania family ended in May. “I thought this money is for a host family, but they don’t get any money. And what is that money for? School is free, and room is free. That’s ridiculous.”

Kim’s case, involving a Texas exchange program, is one of several examples of programs failing to make the most basic arrangements for students. While most of the 111 U.S. exchange programs report no such problems, the Department of State has ordered a halt to a handful of programs that have left students stuck in hotels or otherwise in limbo.

“When these exchange programs operate under sloppiness and greed, that’s when these accidents can happen and that’s why they do,” said Danielle Grijalva, who once placed exchange students in homes for a Texas-based exchange program but is now director of a watchdog group that looks out for the safety of the students.

Some cases of foreign exchange student abuse with other programs have surfaced in recent years, including one involving Paul Stone of Berea, Ky., who pleaded guilty in April to sodomizing a 15-year-old Taiwanese girl his family hosted.

“Students arriving without homes, forced to live in basements, placed in homes of convicted felons and registered sex offenders is not cultural exchange,” Grijalva said.

In Kim’s case, Mansfield-based United Students Association Inc., a Christian cultural exchange program, had not officially secured a public school for Kim in Allentown, Pa.

The program is one of five U.S. high school programs that have been told by the State Department to withdraw their exchange visitor program designations in recent years.

Moacir Rodrigues, executive director of USA Inc., said the few instances where students were left without homes or schools were due to extreme circumstances and rarely happen.

“Families change their minds – it happens all the time,” he said. “This is a minority of cases.”

Rodrigues also said the group has little control over the final fee charged to students in the program. He said USA Inc. only charged between $3,500 and $3,850 in the past two years for the program, but representatives in 29 countries can charge whatever commission they please.

“I don’t see and I don’t know how much people charge,” he said. “They don’t spend it with me.”

Until earlier this year, Rodrigues brought in thousands of students using J-1 visas, which are issued as part of the Department of State’s exchange visitor program. Organizations that bring students to the U.S. through this program are monitored by the State Department.

In April, the State Department revoked USA Inc.’s designation that allowed it to bring in foreign students with J-1 visas because the program did not meet required standards. Stanley Colvin, who directs the exchange coordination and designation program for the State Department, said the program left several students living in hotels without host families or schools for weeks.

By the end of August, USA Inc. planned to bring in about 80 students by using F-1 visas, which are issued by the Department of Homeland Security and do not require students to have housing or schools set up prior to arriving in the U.S.

Colvin said USA Inc. also failed to have adequately trained staff.

Rodrigues would not go into specifics about how he trains his staff, who help him place students with host families, but said that he trusts them.

“They’re all Christians,” he said. “They’re all fine.”

Barbara Phillips, Kim’s host mother in Pennsylvania, said USA Inc. staff called her using her church’s member directory and asked if they could be a host family just days before he arrived in the U.S. Phillips said she was given 24 hours to make a decision.

“Right from the start I was skeptical about how legitimate they were,” she said. “It almost looks like they’re going from church to church recruiting families that way.”

Tina Sweet, a program development director in the Allentown area who called Phillips, said she only uses church directories with permission from the churches.

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2008 Mar 13: Foreign exchange troubles come home

Couple accused of scamming students say they did their best, are victims themselves.

March 13, 2008|By Brian Callaway Of The Morning Call

The Allentown couple accused by the state of scamming foreign exchange students and area Christian schools out of more than $130,000 say the trouble stems from bad business moves, not illegal behavior.

“Finances are just not our cup of tea,” Tina Sweet said earlier this week.

She also denied allegations made by the state attorney general’s office in a lawsuit that she and her husband, Timothy, had subjected students to “substandard” conditions, including threats and forcing them to find their own way home from local malls.

Tina Sweet said she’s “tough” with children, but would never harm them.

Her husband said they wanted to do right by the students.

“We have the thing to help people,” he said. “That’s just our nature.”

The attorney general’s office filed its lawsuit against the Sweets last Thursday, the same day Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin confirmed his office is investigating the couple.

A man who didn’t identify himself answered the Sweets’ phone after the suit was filed said the Sweets weren’t there, and referred calls to their attorney. The attorney, Robert Rust, later agreed to set up an interview with his clients at their west Allentown home.

Tina Sweet said she decided to help find host families and schools for exchange students after hosting a Hungarian girl about 10 years ago.

She said she worked for various exchange agencies over the years, including a stint placing students in this region for a Texas-based nonprofit group called United Students Association.

While the Sweets were working for United Students Association, the group lost its certification to place students in public schools from the U.S. State Department.

The group can still place students in private schools through a separate visa program, which is subject to less government oversight.

Darlene Kirk, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said the group lost its certification because of complaints that students were brought to this country without arrangements for schooling or host families.

Tina Sweet and Moacir Rodrigues, United Students Association’s executive director, blame each other for those problems.

“They did not complete the job,” Rodrigues said. “The job was to place students in Christian homes … and to take care of them.

“I lost my designation because of what they did.”

Sweet said Rodrigues sent students here before she’d had time to find homes for them. She said she continued working with him out of “loyalty.”

Tina Sweet said she wasn’t always able to make sure host families were compatible with students.

“At that point, we were just trying to make matches,” she said.

Exchange students, sometimes as many as eight at a time, have stayed at the Sweets’ home over the years. The Sweets also have several children of their own and foster children.

Some of the students stayed in basement bedrooms. The Sweets declined to allow a Morning Call photographer to take pictures of the rooms, saying they’ve been changed into offices since then. They did allow a reporter and photographer to see the rooms, though, to verify they were finished and heated.

Sweet acknowledged that many of the allegations made in the state’s lawsuit are at least partially true, but said they lack the “context” to show students weren’t mistreated.

She said she did periodically threaten to send students back to their home country, for instance, but typically only did so to get students to behave.

She also said foreign students in her care went places unsupervised, but denied there’s anything wrong with that.

“Their parents sent them halfway around the world unsupervised,” she said. “Why can’t they go to the mall unsupervised?”

The Sweets set up their own company, which has been called both United Student Exchange and United International Studies, a little more than a year ago.

It has not been certified to place students in public schools; instead, it places students in schools such as Bethlehem Catholic High School, Lehigh Valley Christian High School and Faith Christian Academy in Sellersville, Bucks County.

According to court papers, the Sweets charged foreign students $3,500 to be placed in a school, another $2,500 to be paid to the host family, and additional money for tuition.

In its lawsuit, the attorney general’s office accused the Sweets of not passing along tuition and host family fees paid to them for dozens of students. The suit seeks to recoup those funds. The students were recruited by the Human Centre, a company with offices in South Korea and Australia.

Court papers say the Human Centre turned over records showing it referred 24 students and transferred nearly $134,000 by wire and check to the Sweets.

Tina Sweet said the records are faulty or faked.

“Anybody can create a spreadsheet,” she said.

She said it’s really the Human Centre that owes her and her husband money, claiming it never paid for many of the students.

She said she spent months forgiving bills left unpaid by Centre Chief Executive Officer Edwin Hong, thinking he’d eventually pay up; she also said she took $20,000 she’d gotten from other exchange students and used it to help cover various expenses.

“I don’t think what I did was wrong,” she said. “I think it was a bad business choice.”

Hong, in a phone interview from his office in Australia, said the records he gave the attorney general’s office are accurate.

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“I would be very stupid turning over something fabricated,” he said.

As the Sweets’ troubles developed, exchange students, area families who’ve hosted students and school officials have complained about their operation.

As part of the state’s legal filing, a judge issued an injunction barring the Sweets from bringing in any new students and largely freezing their bank accounts. There are no foreign students living with them now.

brian.callaway@mcall.com

610-820-6168

LAWSUIT ACCUSATIONS

In a lawsuit, the state attorney

general’s office said Timothy and Tina Sweet, an Allentown couple who ran a business called United Student Exchange, did the following:

Improperly handled $130,000 meant to cover Christian school tuition and other expenses of foreign exchange students.

Subjected some students to

“substandard’ care.

Left students unsupervised at malls on weekends.

Threatened to send students back home and to keep their money.

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2008: Pennsylvania Sues Exchange Student Business