One island, many worlds
For most of the year, Block Island is quiet, peaceful and ethnically-challenged.
Come summer, though, the population explodes, bringing renters and day-trippers from all over the world. The seasonal boom also attracts international student workers — over 200 of them — from Turkey, Romania, Kosovo, Russia, Jamaica, China, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Nigeria. These college students work as waiters, receptionists, maids, cashiers and everything in between at about 20 island locations. The island even sounds different. Suddenly, a plethora of different languages can be heard while in line at the grocery store or the post office, and new faces spring up behind the deli counter or at the restaurant.
These students are able to work on the island through the U.S. Department of State’s Summer Work Travel program. This initiative falls under the department’s J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, which was established in 1961 under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (Fulbright–Hays Act of 1961). This program is the largest in the world, serving approximately 80,000 students per year. Students work for the first three months of the summer and then have about a month free to travel the U.S. before returning to their home countries for the fall semester.
Summer Work Travel is a government program, but it’s privately funded. The State Department oversees compliance and the health, safety and welfare of participants. The department also works with various sponsors, such as Dynamic Global Exchange and Alliance Abroad.
According to Deb Martin, one of the founders of Dynamic Global Exchange, the experience really changes the students.
“They become less a person of their country and more a person of the world,” Martin said.
“It’s meant to promote mutual understanding,” Nadine Zaatar, program coordinator for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said.
The sponsors screen and vet hosts and employers and also connect with overseas partners, who are responsible for screening and then enrolling students.
One such partner is Experience: Work and Travel U.S.A., which is an agency in Serbia. Co-owners Nikola Čubrilo and Zelko Kuesic consider applicants’ English proficiency, education status, abilities and preferences before placing them with a sponsor and then an employer. Participants must be full-time, traditional students and speak English well enough to hold a conversation. Those who do not meet this requirement are encouraged to take lessons. However, Čubrilo pointed out that learning English is one of the main reasons students take part, and that the four-month program allows for complete cultural immersion. After screening students, Experience assists participants in obtaining visas, completing paperwork, and relaying pre-departure information.
“All the answers they need, they get from us,” Čubrilo said.
Olja Kaludjerovic and Andrea Krnjaic went through Experience and Global Dynamic Exchange for their trip to Block Island. Both are students at the University of Novi Sad, which boasts 44,000 students. Novi Sad is the second largest city in Serbia and the administrative seat of the province of Vojvodina, and a sprawling cultural and historic mecca that’s home to more than 330,000 people. It’s located on the Danube River, and famed for its many music festivals and institutions of higher learning. The Serbian city and Block Island are worlds away, in terms of size and lifestyle, but this doesn’t seem to bother 23-year-old Kaludjerovic or Krnjaic. After all, this is their second summer living and working on the island.
The two have been close friends for the past several years; before spending this summer and last on Block Island as servers at the Harbor Grill, the duo worked at a resort in Greece for two summers. There, they had the opportunity to practice and improve their English. They credit this experience in being placed in waitressing positions, which require constant interaction with customers. The Harbor Grill has been a great placement, so much so that they requested the job two years in a row. They receive discounted meals from the restaurant, and have set up bank accounts and a Peapod account as well. Though the housing at the Highview (above Club Soda) is not five-star, (mainly because of the bathroom situation), the girls are roommates and have a clean, livable room.
Both girls are studying hotel management. Students in this major are required to have two months of internship experience, and working at the Harbor Grill fulfills this requirement. It also enhances their curriculum vitae, the girls said, which is essential because they might pursue master’s degrees eventually. Both students graduate in March, and said that they might work for a European cruise company post graduation.
Kaludjerovic chose to pursue hotel management after studying quantum management in high school and finding it to her liking, and Krnjaic said that she was drawn to the program because she enjoys working with people.
“When you work with people everyday, though, you see how tough it is,” Krnjaic said, laughing and adjusting her floral scarf.
For the most part, however, the girls agreed that people in the U.S. (or, at least, on Block Island) are much nicer than people in Serbia.
“Here, everyone is so helpful and thankful,” Krnjaic said, adding that people here are more patient with people in the food service industry.
“People are so nice and polite,” Kaludjerovic agreed. Back home, she said, people don’t routinely stop and say hello or ask one another how they are; it’s not part of the culture.
As is expected, there are several little differences that have taken some getting used to, the girls said. American movies, music and television have found their way to Serbia but, for example, there are no brownies or Pop Tarts back home, much to their chagrin. There’s far less seafood, microwaves are not as widely used, and online shopping and trip planning has not yet become big in Serbia. Even the cars, they said, are different. They’re all stick shifts, and pickup trucks are very uncommon.
Both girls said that the economic instability back home does not allow young people to work during the summer; there aren’t many non-degree, service industry jobs available. On Block Island, they have the opportunity to earn much more than they would at home, and the exchange rate is in their favor. Program costs, which often include airfare, amount to about $3,000, so saving up money is key. Krnjaic and Kaludjerovic had some money left over last summer, and Kaludjerovic was able to purchase her own car, a Peugeot.
Most importantly, though, the girls were able to travel. In September 2013, they spent six days in New York City and rented an apartment on the Upper East Side.
“We went to see everything that could be seen,” Krnjaic said.
After New York, they found an inexpensive hostel in Miami and stayed there for a while before heading to Puerto Rico. This September, Krnjaic and Kaludjerovic have plans to see the west coast, Los Angeles and Las Vegas in particular. It still depends on money, they said, and this summer seems to be a bit slower than last, business-wise.
While on island, Krnjaic and Kaludjerovic enjoy the scenery on their days off. They go out to eat and go dancing at the bars, and visit the mainland to go shopping (Marshall’s is their favorite). They visit the library often, and Skype or talk to their families daily using the free Wi-Fi. Kaludjerovic, an only child, must have an interesting Skype history; her father lives in Novi Sad, her mother in Sweden. Krnjaic, whose family moved from Croatia to Serbia in 1995, due to war, said she has a large family, headed by “the best parents in the world.” Her parents, aunts, and cousins alike join in the Skype sessions. Though being so far from home can be difficult, the girls said that the picture they have of American people is that most are kind and welcoming.
“We have some tough days, of course,” Krnjaic said. “In the end, nobody remembers anything bad.”
This is the first installment of a series about international workers’ lives on the island. Be on the lookout for future installments.
The following was presented to the Town Council at its July 16 meeting. The issue, which was presented by Socha Cohen, a member of the International Student Workers Coalition, will be revisited at the Town Council’s Aug. 4 meeting.
Goal: To discuss minimum housing standards as they apply to international student workers who live and work on Block Island
Background information: The Work Travel USA program offers cultural exchange opportunities to foreign students with the purpose of advancing the public diplomacy goals of the U.S. As students have been coming to the island for the past 10 years, their numbers have greatly increased from about 80 (five years ago) to over 220 in 2014. The cost of the program for students ranges from $3,000 to $5,000 (depending on the country), which includes airfare. There is no cost to the employers who hire them.
Under the guidance of BIRA (Block Island Residents Association), members of the community have recently formed an International Student Workers (ISW) Coalition whose purpose is to welcome, inform, safeguard, and support international student workers living and working on Block Island. Membership includes BIRA’s own ISW Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, Harbor Church, and Block Island Health Services, to list a few. We are happy to report that most employers on the island offer the students clean rooms, free or reduced-cost meals, free or affordable transportation and reliable work hours. Unfortunately, there are also reports of unacceptable working conditions, including unreasonable hours, untimely fees, verbal abuse, intimidation, and poor or inadequate housing conditions. Although only three or four employers are involved, each one may house up to 30 students.
Housing issues include overcrowding and inadequate numbers of bathrooms, as well as health and safety hazards. Some students have been afraid to report these conditions so as not to lose their jobs. Even if violations are reported, the employer can be given up to 60 days to comply (30 days for each notice of compliance). That does not include the time for follow-up hearings or possible court cases. Since students stay on the island for no more than three or four months, they are gone before the problems have been fully addressed.
We therefore request that the Town of New Shoreham either amends the minimum housing standards for those student workers who are here for no more than four months, or create a separate set of standards for temporary housing by drastically reducing the number of days allowed for compliance.
Submitted by Socha Cohen, member of the ISW Coalition