International Students: Working the OBX & Chasing the Dream

Have you ever heard the expression ‘nose blind,’” asks Michael Montiel. “You know that experience when you’ve smelled something so much that you don’t notice it anymore? My son is not even aware of the American dream. He just lives it. But if you are coming from the Soviet Union with parents who were literally hungry – I mean hungry,” he continues as he’s scooping at the air and lifting empty hands to mouth, “They are the ones coming with a metaphorical hunger” to work here that other workers do not have.

Montiel is describing how keenly different it is to work with foreign students at his Kitty Hawk restaurant, Rundown Café. But what is the real story behind the influx of international students who come here to work and travel? Is it fair to our own college students who are trying to earn tuition money? What do they think of us?

Who is Here?

Nancy Bellantine, owner of Pathways to Well-Being, an Outer Banks organization that advocates for foreign student workers, estimates there will be 1,600 foreign students working on the Outer Banks this summer and they come from a diverse list of countries that include Kazakhstan, China, Poland, Croatia, Jamaica, Columbia, and Taiwan. Today’s number represents roughly half of the 3,000 students who traveled here in the heyday of 2007 and 2008. 

Ask a few employers about what kind of person shows up when a J-1 visa student arrives at their business and one phrase will come up repeatedly: ‘cream of the crop.’

Students who were J-1 visa workers on the Outer Banks in 2006 have returned to successful careers in their native countries (front row left-right) Karol Jokl, leads the Department of Ministry for the Slovak President; Natasa Majernokova, attorney and mother of three; Peter Jarkovsky, lead attorney for an electric power company; Andrea Kralovenska, attorney and mother of two.

“My kids are the cream of the crop,” Bellantine says. “This is a cultural exchange program. They are here legally. They go back home, and now they are running countries.”

Montiel agrees, “My first worker was the most stellar individual I’ve ever had working for me. He was a biomedical engineer major, his parents were both professors, he was 23 years old when he arrived and stayed four years because he enrolled in school here. That kid – I could’ve put in charge of the restaurant and left town!”

And here comes that phrase again, “You gotta remember; these are the cream of the crop. That’s how they are able to come here.”

Aicel Obinguar and Hansell Gabon are two 19-year-olds studying Hotel Restaurant Management (HRM) at St. Mary’s College in the Philippines. Their fluency in English would be disarming to anyone who realizes this is their first week in the U.S. They are working as housekeepers at the Hilton Garden Inn of Kitty Hawk to complement their HRM degrees. 

Why Hire J-1s?

Obinguar and Gabon’s school year ends in March – long before our college students are available to work and conveniently at the same time room occupancy rates are increasing at Outer Banks hotels. They will leave the Outer Banks in mid-June to start their second year of college, and two others with compatible schedules will fill their vacated positions through early fall. 

Left-right: Aicel Obinguar and Hansell Gabon, both 19, worked at the Hilton in Kitty Hawk this spring and are Hotel Restaurant Management students at St. Mary’s College in the Philippines.

Also benefiting the Hilton, Obinguar and Gabon have already earned NCII certification (a household cleaning services credential) in the Philippines while studying for their HRM degrees.

Jodie O’Sullivan, who works in human resources at the Hilton Garden Inn of Kitty Hawk, reports that they have been hiring J-1 workers for the past nine years. She says that international students represent a guaranteed workforce that is important to the business’s bottom line. 

“J-1 students tend to have a very strong work ethic overall – no task is too much and they are always wanting to work extra hours and overtime,” says O’Sullivan.

Montiel can easily rattle off a list of qualities he values in J-1 students. “They want to impress, their attentiveness to detail, they excel in their studies.” But then his face lights up and he hands over his phone, “Here, read this text message I just got yesterday!”

My name is Shuk from Uzbekistan. I am happy to have an opportunity to work in your cafe …. The main purpose of my writing this letter is to ask when I can go and start working. Since our studies have already finished, I would like to start working as soon as possible if you let me. 

“… and he’s not even here yet!” Montiel says. “They want to work as many hours as possible. That’s critical. They’re not asking for time off to be in a friend’s wedding.”

Bellantine echoes this sentiment, “These kids are here for one reason and one reason only. They are very focused. Our [American] students have a life [outside of work]. They want to spend time on the beach.”

Why the Outer Banks? 

With all the possible agencies sending students to work summer jobs in the U.S., Bellantine says, “They could choose to be anywhere in the country,” but along with our famous beaches, she believes our proximity to Washington, D.C. and New York City also make this area attractive. 

Area businesses donate tickets, coupons, and reflective bags to encourage students to explore the area.

Obinguar and Gabon were presented a short list of resort areas offered by their agency in New York. They chose the Outer Banks over Miami, Florida and the Wisconsin Dells. When asked what motivated them to get summer jobs in the U.S., they said, “to be independent, to see New York City, and to buy iPhones.”

It doesn’t hurt that they have been studying English since kindergarten, and spending four months in the U.S. is a great way to perfect language skills that are 13 years in the making. 

Factor in our country’s comparatively large hourly wage and strong currency (when compared to a weak Philippine peso and wages), those differences add up to a lot more purchasing power when students return and pay for tuition and consumer goods at home.

The Communication Conundrum

Professional interaction with customers and good communication skills are concerns for any employers of college students. But English proficiency of foreign students presents more challenges.

Hilton’s O’Sullivan says, “We’ve learned it depends on the country they are from. Some countries learn English from kindergarten– other countries do not and it can be a concern at times, especially when training the new students.”

“In fact,” she adds, “one of the biggest misconceptions about the J-1 students in the community is that they don’t understand what you’re talking about – they usually do – it’s just how we communicate with them. It requires patience.” 

She says that while most guests embrace and enjoy the diversity the J-1 students bring, they do get a small number of guests who are bothered by the interaction. The negative response is usually due to a communication breakdown when giving specific instructions about cleaning a room or needing supplies. 

Montiel agrees that customer contact is a challenge with J-1 students. 

“The communication barrier has to be worked on very hard [for them] to be ‘in front of the house’ [as servers or hosts], but they are quick studies because of their education background. We put a lot of energy into J-1s so they get what they want and we get what we want. They may be twice the amount of work as other employees, but the end-result is double.” 

“But Theyíre Taking Our Jobs”

Bellantine admits that most employers don’t place their students in front of the customer, but that it has less to do with English proficiency and more to do with protecting the student who may encounter an irate customer, “because so many people think that they are taking jobs from Americans.”

Community outreach from the OBX includes regular orientation sessions at the Outer Banks YMCA. There, students can apply for a social security card, meet fellow workers, get local information, and learn safety regulations.

In the employers’ defense, she explains, “All of the employers I work with really try to hire locally first, but our college students go back to school in August” leaving businesses with a huge gap in staffing. 

O’Sullivan says, “As a seasonal property, we rely on them heavily. Our guest satisfaction would suffer tremendously if it weren’t for the J-1 visa student work and travel program. The OBX working pool is a struggle and these students always show up to work, they strive for excellence…are reliable and want to work.”

But how level is the playing field? Regardless of nationality, the same tax and minimum wage laws govern employers. That means J-1 students will have federal and state taxes deducted from their paychecks. However, their paychecks do not get hit with unemployment or social security deductions since they do not have the protections associated with those programs. 

The Cultural Exchange

The full name of the J-1 is the ‘Exchange Visitor’ visa. It is issued by the U.S. Department of State and is defined as a temporary, non-immigrant visa for work and travel over a three-month period, with a one-month grace allowance. It requires a full cultural exchange experience that is not limited to wage earning. J-1s are also held to strict safety regulations that, for example, prohibit them from operating slicers, performing hard labor, or traveling for work. 

Montiel says that the government offices from the students’ countries are vigilant about the work, travel, and culture balance. 

Soon after his workers arrive, he says, “This fed guy calls me and starts asking me questions like, ‘Did you get two workers from (insert country name here)? How many hours are they working? What jobs are they doing for you?’” 

On top of that, they are also hounding the students with questions like, “Did you go to the beach? Have you seen any movies? They want them to get out and see things!”

Montiel encourages them to go to Ocracoke, Busch Gardens, and other places for experiences they cannot have at home. He finds that the ‘cultural exchange’ that interests students are clothes with American labels, cell phones, and Apple products.

Bellantine will proudly list current vocations of some of the students she has kept in touch with: a doctor, three lawyers, and one who is now a representative on the European Union’s governing council. 

She says that a small percentage have applied to convert their J-1 into an F-1 visa so they can stay here legally to attend college. And of course, some fall in love, get married and start family businesses here. She can name a hotel manager, a bank branch manager, and a restaurant owner who are settled here after their J-1 summer.

There are lessons learned on both sides of the equation. Obinguar and Gabon were preparing breakfast during the interview for this article – which meant an entire fish, head and all, was in a frying pan smoking up the kitchen in the host family’s kitchen. They explain that most Filipinos reject microwaved, ready-to-eat, or frozen, convenience foods. 

On the other side of the equation, they were surprised by the lack of public transportation and the strict rule following and punctuality that Americans take for granted.

Obinguar and Gabon laugh in unison, wave their hands, and shout “Hi!” to mimic a typical American greeting that they find so odd.

 “We thought all Americans had guns, but everyone’s so friendly!” 

Montiel sums it up nicely.

 “The American dream is alive and well and here for everyone. But you actually have to work as hard as you can. In Russia, Ukraine, wherever, you can work for someone for 20 years and end up not owning a business because they pass down everything to family,” says Montiel. “Here, when they realize that they have the opportunity to take over the business – they grab hold of it and never look back. That’s why it’s called the American dream!” ♦

Susan Selig Classen

Susan Selig Classen has been living, writing, and editing on the Outer Banks for over ten years. Her other published work includes articles in AOPA Pilot, Convention South, and Brain Child magazines. Susan was formerly the editor for Three Dog Ink Media.

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