recounts a rewarding
experience with foreign
students who travel to Ocracoke for a summer of work
By B.J. OELSCHLEGEL
I ventured down the path of employing eastern European students when
the supply of local employees started running dry. Each summer, I would
struggle with not enough workers or, even worse, not enough workers who
would show up.
I would live in dread of having to learn the date that I would lose the
U.S. college students, as they headed back to school. Besides having to
run a business, maintaining employee coverage is a major stressor for
A fellow shop owner told me about her foreign student worker program
and I saw hope at the end of the tunnel.
I researched an organization called the Council on International
Education Exchange (CIEE). This non-profit and non-governmental group
has been in existence since 1947 with a mission “to help people gain
understanding, acquire knowledge and develop skills for living in a
globally interdependent and culturally diverse world.”
I learned how the program works to provide a legal path for these
students to work in the U.S., and I was qualified through an employer
profile. I described the kind of work I had available, the employee
characteristics that I needed, and my housing options. I had to be able
to find housing for each student, and they expect to pay rent for that
My employer profile was then shopped at a number of job fairs in
Eastern Europe during December. College students choose the profile
which suits them, based on the description of the U.S. location, the
prospective wage, and the housing costs. The program reps are there at
each job fair to assure that the employer’s needs are also met. As an
example, if the employer requires a proficiency in English good enough
to be able to meet the public, the rep would engage the student in
conversation to gain a sense of competency with that skill.
CIEE is only one of the organizations that bring students to the U.S.
for this special four-month J-1 seasonal work visa program. The young
people must be active college students.
They have led me to understand that the allure of a college degree is
expected to guarantee that the students return to their native country.
When quizzed about how the program sustained itself, my rep indicated
that the American side of the organization charged each student $100 to
enter the visa program. The fees from the European side of the program
are much higher. My Moldovan students paid $700, along with the CIEE
fee of $100. Couple that with a $1,300 plane ticket, $500 in travel
expenses, and the first month’s rent, and you can get a sense of the
motivational forces at work to come to the U.S.
These kids are driven to make this adventure happen. Consider the money
required, the governmental visa bureaucracy, the navigational skills
necessary to get from their small hometowns to a large U.S. airport,
having to find their way south, and ultimately being thrown into a
crazy summer season business environment with a new language and new
money system. I often wonder if I could do what they have done.
Much of the history and the historic places that we take for granted in
our country have been a topic of study in their schools from the time
they were in grade school. Anna and Irina, returning Moldovan students,
describe their time in the States as a dream come true.
They tell a story of being transfixed by the elementary school teacher
who initiated their English studies. They promised themselves that they
would come to America to perfect their skills with English and to
experience that which they had studied in school. Anna and Irina
traveled to New York City last year after their stint at The Slushy
Stand and before they flew home.
Anna spoke about the tears in her eyes when she saw the Statue of
Liberty for the first time. The girls knew every detail of the history
of the monument, and there it was! These two young women then became
teachers of English in a Moldovan elementary curriculum during the
2010-2011 school year.
Out of my five years in this program and the 15 students with whom I
have had the pleasure of working, 13 of these kiddos have shown a
strong desire to prove their worth to their employer. This
characteristic is so closely tied to their identity; I find it to be
My favorite story involves a young man from Ukraine who came to me to
tell me that he had secured a second job with another shop owner. I
wanted to be clear that I did not want to have to manipulate my
schedule to accommodate this other employer. With a strong thump of his
forearm diagonally across his chest, he assured me that “My loyalty
will remain to you, B.J.” I almost cried.
Besides the initial step of finding the employees and providing legal
entry into this country, CIEE also supplies a medical insurance program
for the student during their U.S. stay. Additionally, the program
requires the employer to treat these workers as they would an American
worker. A signed contract, with the employer’s commitment to an hourly
wage and an agreed number of hours per week is meant to protect the
student worker’s rights while in this country. CIEE is available 24/7
for questions or concerns from either employer or employee.
So, here I thought that I had merely secured a solid base of workers
for a good long period, generally from before Memorial Day until after
No one warned me about my sense of responsibility towards these young
people. It might have been my sense of compassion for these kids and
their trek into the unknown. It might have been sparked by a
phone call that I received the morning after having made the long haul
from Norfolk to Ocracoke to retrieve my first round of
The day before had been grueling with the heat, the luggage, and the
shopping that was necessary.
It was 6 a.m. the next morning when the phone next to my bed rang. I
was groggy and the voice on the other end said in a thick Bulgarian
accent, “Nadia?” It was the mother of one of the students that I had
just picked up. She knew no English and I knew no Bulgarian. I’m sure
she wanted to know if her daughter had made it safely. I gave her the
phone number for the house where Nadia was staying and wondered if she
What I did know, as one mother to another, is that she had just
entrusted her precious child to me. A wash of protectiveness came over
me, and I have found myself working hard, over the last five years, to
take care of these young people as I would want someone to take care of
my own children, who would have uprooted 3,000 miles for the summer.
In January or February, after the job fairs are over, I receive notice
of the students who will be coming. I ask only for as many workers as I
can find housing for. Our contact starts with an initial e-mail of
introduction. I give them the opportunity to ask questions, and I make
the request that they all try and coordinate their arrival in the U.S.,
with the final destination being either the bus station or airport in
Norfolk, Va. A run to Norfolk in the season is always an ordeal.
Over the years, I have written and refined an e-mail, which I call “The
Final Big European E-mail.”
Initially, I started writing about the weather and what they could
anticipate with regards to the job. The e-mail has grown to include my
expectations for keeping their living arrangements clean, our bug
population, rip currents, what kind of clothes to bring, the effects of
the sun, the need for an alarm clock, mail/UPS contact info, and what
to wear on the job.
There is always a final confirmation of fight numbers or arrival times
and a reiteration of my cell phone number.
At first I had a sign that said “Ocracoke.” Nowadays it is obvious.
They look haggard and I am the one searching.
Lost luggage is common and for sure they are always famished. I love
bringing these kiddos south during the day. From the osprey nests next
to the bridge to the Outer Banks, to the Wright Memorial and Jockey’s
Ridge and the incredible vista from the Bonner Bridge, they are eager
tourists. It is the ride on the ferry that gets them every time!
I have linens waiting for them at the house. They sleep like rocks that
first night. I provide a bike for transportation along with a map.
These students have that “deer in the headlights” look on their faces
as we start the training process on their first day of work. But,
people are people, and they take the same two weeks to drop down into
the groove as any American worker.
There are some refinements that must be made, mostly involving the
One student was greeting the customers with a “What do you want,
mister?” rather than the customary “How may I help you, sir?”
The translation was a little too direct and needed some fine tuning.
The U.S. employees keep an ear peeled for these kinds of
misunderstandings and we always have a good laugh together.
Within three days of their arrival, these students must sign in over
the Internet with the worker program. This confirms their entry into
the U.S. and starts the clock for acquiring a Social Security number.
They do not pay into Social Security and Medicare, but they do pay
federal and state withholding. Every January, I email their W-2s, and
they apply for their tax return.
Acquiring the Social Security number means a day-long trip to Elizabeth
City. Getting the number is easy, but the shopping afterward is
monumental. A Super Walmart can be overwhelming. Helping them weigh the
benefits of one product versus another or trying to find something that
they have in their country but maybe not here gives me a clearer
picture of our cultural differences. It is always fascinating.
These students epitomize the essence of hard work as the basis of one’s
success in life. Not only are they excellent students at their
respective universities, but they take extraordinary pride in being
valuable employees. They assume responsibility for everything they have
been taught to do. When that spills over to other employees, I am a
As with many employees on the island during the summer, these students
take on more than one job. Other employers know about “my students” and
take advantage of the student’s desire to fill every waking hour of
their day with employment. I have five students this season -- three
returning from last year and two new students. That is five different
schedules to accommodate. We set a schedule by fitting the puzzle
pieces for each job together.
These kids are most often on time, always cheerful, and always willing
to give it their best. With what they take home in a summer, they can
purchase a new lap-top or camera and supply living and school expenses
for a year.
From the beginning of my relationship with this program, I have had
students from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia, and Moldova. I have had four
young men and nine young women. Five students have returned for more
than one year. It is a godsend to have workers who can hit the ground
running. This season, I have five students from Moldova -- Anna Oboroc,
Irina Avricenco, and Nadejda Pirlog. From Bulgaria, we have two
sisters, Yana and Aleksandra Stoycheva. Anna, Irina, and Yana have
returned for a second year at The Slushy Stand.
I’ve been thankful for the ready, willing, and able supply of
employees. The cultural exchange is appealing from sharing native
dishes to meeting families via Skype to seeing picture albums of the
I enjoy being the tour guide; as we head out of town in preparation for
their return trip, I try and schedule a couple of stops at The Wright
Memorial, or Roanoke Festival Park, or The Virginia Beach Marine
Science Museum. Many times, all the students want to do is shop. They
opt to skip a meal and direct me to just take them to another bargain
Last year, I had a whole day with Yana and Boro, before their 10 p.m.
bus into Washington, D.C. They had two weeks of a continued adventure
to look forward to in that they were going to Miami, The Everglades,
Glacier National Park, and San Francisco.
On their departure day, we ate Indian food in Norfolk to give Boro a
taste of a new world of spices. He enjoyed his job as a cook at Dajio’s
and spent hours copying recipes out of my recipe books at home. We made
it through all of the aquariums at The Marine Science Museum, my
favorite place in the whole world. We finished off the day at the
oceanfront in Virginia Beach with the two kiddos pedaling me in a cart
down the boardwalk.
Besides falling in love with each of these young people and being
appreciated for all that I can do for them, I see this student work
program as an incredible ambassadorship.
The ripple effect of their time in the U.S. goes way beyond my wildest
expectations. They give more than they take. We each discover that
people are people and not just what we see on the news.
I once asked a Russian student, who ended up living in my guest bedroom
for a month (a much longer story,) what he had learned during his stay
on Ocracoke. His response was “That not all Americans are arrogant.”
These kids have life-changing experiences, and then they go home and
tell their families and friends. Their parents are grateful for the
kindnesses that their children have been shown. We, likewise, have
stories to tell and good memories to hold on to. They become part of
our family here on the island.
What better way to learn that the world is full of people just like us
with the same desires and dreams.
(B.J. Oelschlegel has lived on Ocracoke Island for more than 30 years
and has worked in the real estate business for 26 years. She
broker with Ocracoke’s Lightship Realty and a real estate columnist for
The Ocracoke Observer. You can reach her by e-mail at [email protected])