Work and Travel program brings international students to Cook County

Over 100 international student workers sampled a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner at the Free Church in August
Over 100 international student workers sampled a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner at the Free Church in August

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Summer brings a lot of people to the North Shore: tourists, summer residents, and seasonal workers.  And for the last decade or so, international college students have been coming to Cook County to work during the summer months, part of a U.S. State Department sponsored exchange program called Work and Travel USA. 
 
“I’m Gemila Ozcan. I’m from Turkey, Istanbul.  This is my second summer in Grand Marais. I’m working Blue Water Café, White Pine North, and Sydney’s Frozen Custard.” 
 
Work and Travel USA allows full time college students to legally live, work, and travel in the U.S. during their summer vacations.  Many businesses in Cook County have come to rely heavily on international student workers during the summer.  Diane Stoddard manages the international program for Odyssey Resorts:
 
“I’ve been recruiting for Odyssey for about seven years,” says Stoddard.  “This summer we have students from Turkey, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, China, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Lithuania, Senegal, Jamaica…...”
 
Stoddard estimates there are around 150 international student workers in Cook County during the summer months, working at local resorts, restaurants, grocery stores, and gift shops. 
 
“Generally they’re entry level positions that the local employers have a need for during the busy summer season, because our employment pool in Cook County is kind of small.  For instance, for the summer season, the majority of the international students we hire are working in our housekeeping department.  And as an employer, we would love to have local people.  We’d like to, you know, obviously, keep everyone working that wants to work, and we just don’t get the, there’s just not enough people, we don’t get the  applicants, people who are interested in working in the housekeeping department through the summer.”
 
Stoddard says that sometimes, because the students are working in housekeeping, or other entry level jobs, and their English isn’t the best, that some people assume they are illegal immigrants and treat them with less than the respect they deserve.
 
“Sometimes I get frustrated with kind of the misconceptions that I’m afraid are out there.  These are not people who are just coming and necessarily working because they can’t find a job.  These are individuals who are studying different things, from pre-law to pre-med, to all different kinds of engineering.  And unfortunately there have been instances where some of the students have been kind of mistreated and taken advantage of and, you know, kind of looked down upon, because, well, you know, they’re just housekeepers.  Well, except this is the next generation of the engineers, doctors, and international lawyers.  These are some really awesome kids who are here.” 
 
Over the years, stories have emerged about the problems some international students encounter while working in Cook County.  There have been complaints about poor housing conditions, high rent, lack of transportation, being given fewer hours than expected, and not being paid overtime. This got the attention of some concerned community members who’ve come forward to try and make a difference.  Jean Eisenberger got involved about eight years ago, after meeting an international student on the day he was leaving to go back to his home country.  The young man mentioned to her that until that morning, on the day he was leaving, he’d never before been invited into anyone’s home.
 
“Some of these kids have never, come here, stay for 3, 6 months, and have never been in a home. And I just thought, that should not happen, you know, that these kids come, and there’s no hospitality, no one that, you know, paid any attention to him.” 
 
Eisenberger went to her pastor at the Evangelical Free Church in Grand Marais, and they decided to start holding monthly dinners at the church and to invite all the international students in the county.  They’ve been doing this, six months out of the year, for about eight years now, giving the students a chance to gather, socialize, and hopefully feel more a part of the community.  And every August, volunteers at the Free Church prepare a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.
 
“We call it Thanksgiving in August. We’ll have turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberries, salads, vegetable casseroles, rolls, and pumpkin and apple pie.  So we just want them to experience a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.  And the last time, I think we had this, there were probably a good 100 here. So we’re expecting we could have as many as 110 tonight.”
 
“My name is Ingrid. I’m from Lithuania.”
 
“My name is Victoria. I’m from Lithuania too.
 
 “Ibrahim. I’m from Turkey.” 
 
“My name is Elvira. I’m from Kazakhstan. I work in Lutsen Mountains, Eagle Ridge Resort.  WE CLEAN ROOMS!”
 
“How many of you know what Thanksgiving in America is? Have you heard of it? This is a large turkey that we would cook at home.  It’s 23 pounds.”
 
“I know we had some situations that weren’t the best, but I hope, I hope, at least there’s an awareness that people are concerned and are going to be there to stand up for these kids,” says Jean Eisenberger.  
 
“We want to thank you for honoring us by joining us on these monthly get-togethers. Your presence here, your presence, has been a real blessing to us.”
 
“I would love to see, as a result of people listening to this today, that other people in the community would become aware of these kids.  I mean, these are all college kids, they’re cream-of-the-crop kids, so hopefully, more people will get involved.”
 
The next monthly international student dinner at the Evangelical Free Church is Tuesday, September 28 at 7:00 p.m. To help out, call the church at 387-1565. 

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