Students explore new culture while easing Minot’s worker shortage

J-1 Summer Work/Travel Students in Minot, ND

Minot Daily News: September 2, 2010
It’s no big deal for college students to spend their summers working in housekeeping or fast food to generate some extra cash. It’s more than just another summer job, though, for a group of international students who are exploring American culture while helping fill a need for more entry-level employees in Minot.

“It’s something new,” said Irina Jechiu, of Moldova in eastern Europe. “It’s something interesting. Something exciting.”

Jechiu is one of 14 students from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, China and Taiwan who are working in Minot through the arrangements of United Work and Travel.

Wendy Rupert, manager at The Vegas, learned about a Montana resort’s success with the exchange program and decided to bring six workers to Minot to test the program here. After discovering the work ethic and personal qualities of the international students, she requested additional workers.

“These kids all have such a desire to work and go above and beyond,” Rupert said. “I can’t speak highly enough about these kids. Their work ethic is above reproach. They are willing to work overtime. They are willing to work more than one job. They are always up for a new experience and want to learn the culture.”

In addition to working at The Vegas, students also work at Minot Country Club, M&S Concessions, Quizno’s Subs, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hardees and Guest Lodge. They live in a local hotel.

The entry-level jobs are lucrative for the students. Some make more in their few months than a parent might earn in a year in their home countries, Rupert said. Some send a portion of their earnings home, but they also are earning money for their schooling. Some income is going into travel while they are here and the purchase of items that are difficult to get back home, particularly electronics.

Students work for four months and then have a month to travel America before returning to their home countries.

To be eligible for the exchange, applicants must be full-time university students who hold at least a B average, are conversational in English, can function in an English-speaking society and have ties to their home country that will ensure their return for the long-term. Applicants must interview at the U.S. embassies in their countries.

Fact Box

Agency uses jobs to create cultural exchange

United Work and Travel has been placing international students in American jobs on J-1 visas since 2002. Working with more than 30 countries, the Maryland company places about 5,000 students annually through its summer, winter and spring programs.

Students work in entry-level, often seasonal, jobs, such as waiters, housekeepers, lifeguards, cashiers, landscapers and bartenders.

Kasey Simon, president of the company, said employers gain from bringing a new cultural perspective into the work place, and they are expected to help acquaint their foreign workers with the culture of the community.

“The employer’s responsibility is to not only show them the job details but the community and the area details,” Simon said.

United Work and Travel provides insurance to cover the students. Employers agree to pay wages comparable to wages of their other employees but pay no unemployment or Social Security taxes.

Employers also must be vetted through background checks and verification of job offers, job security and work place safety.

United Work and Travel has a representative in Minot who orients employers before arrival of international workers and assists students with questions or problems once they arrive.

The students are not only quality employees but are accomplished in their own countries, Rupert said. One is an Olympic skier who studied pre-med and worked as a surgical assistant before becoming an elementary teacher. He now is studying music in pursuit of a career in opera. One student is a classical pianist. Another has played on a champion volleyball team, while others have competed in dance or speech and debate. Most speak two or three languages. One student was so fluent in English that Rupert assigned her to the reservation desk at The Vegas, where she’s also been valuable for her Spanish-speaking skill.

Unlike most students who are making their first visit to the United States, Shiang-Chih Tszng and Dong-Zun Wu of Taiwan have been to America previously, although this is their first time without their families.

“What I wanted was a new experience. And money, also, but I think the experience was the most valuable thing for me,” Tszng said.

He said they feel like they are in real America to be living in the country’s heartland.

“Big roads, few cars,” Tszng said in describing Minot. “Our capital is very crowded, many people.”

Wu said he signed up for the work exchange because wanted the opportunity for travel. He’s enjoyed the people of the North Dakota.

“People here are kind. They are patient,” he said.

Ukrainian students Valeriia Bokareve, Oksana Terletska and Anastasiia Puris said they appreciate the helpfulness they’ve experienced in Minot in adapting to the new culture. Puris said the friendliness of people amazed them and it wasn’t just talk when people told them to just ask if they needed anything. People have made them feel comfortable by being there to help, she said.

Chao Zhao of southwestern China said she has found the rural setting interesting.

“I just know about the United States from the TV shows like ‘Friends’ or “Sex and the City” and it’s all about the big city,” she said.

The students have traveled to Raging Rivers Waterpark in Mandan, Medora, the dinosaur museum in Dickinson and the state Capitol in Bismarck. Tatiana Balanescu, of Moldova, said one of the highlights was seeing a buffalo.

Some students have gone to the Peace Garden or visited area lakes. In the Minot area, they’ve been to Scandinavian Heritage Park, the zoo and the Fourth of July fireworks at Sawyer. Employees of M&S Concessions got an inside look at the State Fair, auto racing and football games.

“They have explored the town quite a bit,” Rupert said. “Several of us got bikes from friends, and the kids ride the bikes all around. Their favorite, I think, is to go to the mall and Wal-Mart.”

Lori Nelson, manager of KFC in north Minot, said she is saddened to see the summer workers end their time here.

“They are awesome employees. I wish I could keep them forever,” she said. “This was a wonderful experience for us at this north Minot store.”

She said the workers increased the level of respect among her existing staff as well as brought a new cultural understanding.

“They share a lot about their homelands. They are very proud of their countries,” Rupert said. “They are quick to pick out the differences and tell us what they like and don’t like.”

For instance, they were astounded by the amount of fat that Americans eat. Having been in America a while, though, they have come to like ice cream and some of the other American foods, Rupert said.

The students will begin leaving Minot today. The two students from China will be the last to leave, on Sept. 21. They will return to their studies in economics, finance, law, English and German, engineering, urban planning, English and other fields.

Rupert said more students will be arriving in Minot this fall from Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Colombia. In the spring, students will be coming from Thailand and the Philippines. She expects to see some of her current workers back next summer.

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