From left, Summer Work Travel students Hazel Caba, 22, Jing Yi 'Eva' Jang, 20, and Binbin Wu, 20, talk before starting their workdays as housekeepers at the Alpine. / Kate Stein/Door County Advocate
From left, Summer Work Travel students Hazel Caba, 22; Jing Yi 'Eva' Jang, 20; and Binbin Wu, 20, prepare to start their workdays as housekeepers at the Alpine Resort in Egg Harbor. / Kate Stein/Door County Advocate
From left, Summer Work Travel students Hazel Caba, 22, and Jing Yi 'Eva' Jang, 20, make a bed at the Alpine Resort in Egg Harbor.
Jing Yi 'Eva' Jang, 20, cleans a fridge in a cottage at the Alpine Resort in Egg Harbor. Jang, from China, is one of approximately 300 foreign students working in Door County this summer with the Department of State's Summer Work Travel program. / Kate Stein/Door County Advocate
International students working in Door County through the Summer Work Travel program pose for a photo with the flags of their home countries. The students had just participated in a talent show hosted by BRIDGES of Friendship to International Students, a Door County outreach organization. / Photos by Kate Stein/Door County Advocate
Quietly buried in the heap of chapters, titles, subtitles and sections making up the United States Senate’s 844-page proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill is a section called, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund.” This section, Section 6, is underreported when compared with components such as Section 2103, “DREAM Act” (which addresses the naturalization of foreign-born, college-educated, non-citizen residents of the United States), or Title I, “Border Security.” Yet for Door County, the implications of Section 6 are just as great as are the implications of Section 2103 and Title I.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund proposed in Section 6 would be a $6.5 billion Treasury account used to pay for a border fence and other projects and programs promoting border security between the U.S. and Mexico. Some money to maintain these projects would come from a fee charged to employers who hire international students to work in the U.S. through the State Department’s Summer Work Travel program.
If Section 6 of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill were passed as it is, Door County employers would have to pay a per-student fee to hire international help for the summer. But the fund is only a small, impersonal part of a larger story: the experiences of students, employers and community members involved with the Summer Work Travel program.
The most common word employers, sponsors and outreach volunteers use to describe Work Travel students is, appropriately, “hard-working.” The majority of students hold two jobs, generally one with full-time hours and one with extended part-time hours. Twelve- or 16-hour days are not uncommon, particularly during Independence Day and Labor Day weekends. And students work in low-wage positions, as maids, clerks, waiters and waitresses and bussers — positions many American workers may not consider desirable.
As the name implies, the Work Travel program is intended to allow current, non-American university students to work and travel during a summer in the U.S. Part of the intent is to promote cultural exchange and international diplomacy. The approximately 73,000 students in the U.S. with the program this year are required to be fluent in English and to participate in activities that engage them with U.S. citizens and American culture, according to an official for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
For many of Door County’s approximately 300 students, work takes priority over the travel and cultural experiences.
“We use (the program) more as a way of working hard and making money,” said a waiter who was in the Work Travel program for three years before moving to Door County permanently to work. “The program isn’t really designed for that.”
The waiter, who asked to remain anonymous, added that it was three or four years before he had a chance to travel in the U.S. for cultural experience and pleasure.
Many students, particularly those from eastern European countries, enter the program because the pay in the United States is much higher — and more reliable — than they would receive at home. Because of their long hours and multiple jobs, these students don’t necessarily have much time for sightseeing in Door County or throughout the U.S. And after paying for plane tickets and paying agency, sponsor and J-1 visa fees, students may not have much extra money to spend on travel, particularly since most of them are saving to pay for university educations in their home countries.
Yet most students still say they enjoy the experience of coming to the U.S. and working in Door County. Nearly all students interviewed emphasized how welcome they feel here; many also said their employers are like second families to them. And there are other reasons they enjoy the program, too.
“For me, the best reason is meeting … new people, different cultures, trying different things,” said Aleksandra Vitanova, a 22-year-old Bulgarian student who works mainly at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor. “And here, the nature is perfect. It’s untouched.”
“The food at the Wickman House is so good!” said Abigail Appiah, a 21-year-old from Ghana who works at Rowleys Bay Resort and the Wickman House in Ellison Bay. Appiah enthusiastically sang her national anthem in a talent show hosted by BRIDGES of Friendship to International Students, a Door County outreach group.
“It was wonderful,” she said of the show. “(The experience) has been great.”
Nadiia Bondarieva, a 19-year-old from Ukraine who works at the Door County Ice Cream Factory, the Patio Motel and the Bluffside Motel, all in Sister Bay, said she has particularly enjoyed getting to know her co-workers at the Ice Cream Factory.
“Three months is not a lot, but I feel like these girls are family,” Bondarieva said, adding that she appreciates how in Door County, “People always talk to you and smile.”
The Waterbury Inn in Ephraim depends on its seven Work Travel students, from Russia, China and Hungary, to remain operational during the summer tourist season.
“If it wasn’t for the international students program, we wouldn’t have enough students to clean our rooms and run our resort,” said Sarah Anschutz, Waterbury Inn assistant manager. “We’d have to shut down. We don’t get enough American staff to get through the season.”
But if the Inn were required to pay a fee for each of the international students it employs, Anschutz said she couldn’t be sure resort management could pay.
“(The resort) would be running ads in the paper to hopefully be able to fill, you know, nine housekeeping positions with anyone who is local,” she said. “But … we never get enough (local) applicants to fill a whole housekeeping staff for the summer.”
Like the Waterbury Inn, many other Door County businesses would be forced to choose between paying the fees so they would have enough employees for the summer, or not paying the fees and facing staff shortages. Currently, the proposed per-student fee is $100; this fee is down from the original $500, in part because of efforts by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Simply hiring American students wouldn’t be an effective solution for the summer labor shortage. Door County has a relatively small population of high school and college students, so there are more summer jobs available than local students to fill them. Many businesses who hire international students also hire American high school and college students, but the American students generally go back to school before the end of the tourist season in October. Most international students working in Door County don’t start school until October, so they can work for the entire summer season.
“The season doesn’t end in Door County… (on) the first of September,” said Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. “(The Work Travel program) provides a more flexible workforce to serve the traveling public.”
The names of two Summer Work Travel Participants were misspelled in the original version of this story, posted Sept. 14, 2013. Aleksandra Vitanova’s name was misspelled in the article text; Binbin Wu’s name was misspelled in a photo caption.
Kate Stein served an internship with the Door County Advocate this summer on a partial scholarship from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. Her last day was Friday. Contact her through firstname.lastname@example.org.