Freddy Rodriguez and Wilby Feliz say they were surprised to see cars stopping to wait for them to cross the street when they first arrived in Williamsburg, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of life in the Dominican Republic.
“In Santo Domingo, you have to run to cross the street, but here it’s very calm and respectful and there are a lot of rules that people follow,” said Rodriguez, 19.
That is just one of the many differences they’ve both noticed since arriving to the area through the Department of State’s J-1 Summer Work Travel visa program, which will allow hundreds of university students from around the world to stay and work in Williamsburg in the coming months.
Students from countries including Romania, Jamaica, China and Turkey are connected with sponsor organizations and spend three to four months working at tourist destinations across the country. In Williamsburg, they work for the staples of the local tourism industry, from hotels and resorts to local restaurants and attractions such as Busch Gardens.
According to data from the State Department, Virginia ranks as one of the top destinations for J-1 students, with 5,211 working across the state in 2017. More than 350 international students have arrived in Williamsburg so far in May according to Nathan Arnold, spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
“The Summer Work Travel program provides thousands of university students from around the world the opportunity to experience American culture while working in the United States during their break from school,” Arnold said. “Participants establish connections with U.S. citizens, build networks, improve English-language skills and form lifelong connections with each other and Americans.”
This summer marks the 10th year Amy Lee, manager at the Pineapple Inn and Housing Center, has been tasked with housing students at her hotel. She expects to have about 240 J-1 students staying with her this year, with the majority arriving in Williamsburg by mid-June.
She says most students staying at the Pineapple Inn work at area timeshares and hotels as housekeeping or wait staff. Although it can be hard work, Feliz says everyone has been friendly at his job at the Historic Powhatan Resort, and that he has enjoyed exploring the area with friends on his days off.
“I’ve already gone to Newport News, and we got to go shopping and to visit some places around there,” Feliz said.
Rodriguez studies industrial engineering at a university in Santo Domingo. He says he chose to spend his summer in Williamsburg as a housekeeper at Kingsmill Resort to improve his English, and has hopes of working at a call center when he returns home.
“After I’m done, I want to continue with university and keep studying English and work in a call center taking calls from people here in the United States,” said Rodriguez. “That’s why I wanted to come, because as much as I can practice in school, practicing face-to-face is better.”
Lee says she was happy to see students swinging by her office to wish her a happy Mother’s Day earlier this month, with many coming to see her as their “American mom” over the course of the summer.
“I love these kids. I’m not supposed to call them my kids anymore, but a lot of them do feel like my children,” said Lee. “My goal when I first started here was that, if I had a child and I sent them to Istanbul, I want somebody in Istanbul to take care of them, to take them under their wing and make sure they have a great experience.”
Lee also hopes to support the students as the co-chairwoman of the Williamsburg International Student Outreach Program, a new organization she says will provide them with resources and connect them with local families to get a more authentic American experience.
One of the organization’s first goals will be to distribute 500 bicycle lights in an effort to improve visibility for the students while they bike around the city. Lee says bike safety has been a concern in previous years.
“We had a couple of students last year at another hotel who got hit by a car as they were leaving a parking lot because the cars weren’t paying attention, and one of them ended up breaking a leg, so we are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen this year,” said Lee.
Bob Harris, another member of the organization’s leadership board, says he hopes to foster the program as a cultural exchange opportunity and a source for employees in the tourism industry to help fill shortages during the busy summer months.
In the coming years, members of the outreach program also hope to hold regular meetings to connect students with local families, which Lee says is what students request the most year after year. For the past seven years, a small number of families from Walnut Hills Baptist Church have volunteered to host students staying at the Pineapple Inn with their “summer families” program.
Brenda Bass, a church member and participant in the program, says she’s formed lasting connections with students through simple acts such as inviting them over for dinner or inviting them for a swim at the local pool.
“One year we had five girls from China that we really got involved with, we had them over at least once a week, and one of them actually invited us to her wedding,” said Bass. “I still hear from that group from time to time, and we had them four or five years ago, so I think you make lasting impacts on their lives, and they see what it’s really like to be an American family.”
Rodriguez says the experience of being in a new country and exploring Williamsburg has been “unparalleled,” and he has high hopes for his summer abroad.
“Imagine how that was for someone who has never left his hometown to see something new. It was really great,” Rodriguez said.
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.