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The Ups and Downs of Summer Work Travel

This post is by VOA intern Matthew Kupfer, and was originally written in Russian for our sister blog, Альма-матер. Matthew says, "although my post is written with a Russian-speaking audience in mind, the topic should be relevant to most everyone because the Work and Travel program is open to students from around the world."

When I studied in St. Petersburg as part of an intensive Russian language program, I often talked with Russian students, who shared their plans and dreams with me. Among the most popular themes of these intimate conversations were student exchanges in the U.S.—especially Work and Travel.

Work and Travel is a program that allows foreign students to come to the U.S. to work and simultaneously plunge into American culture for up to five months. A typical student who participates in this program spends the first few months working, and then can spend time traveling in America if he or she so chooses.

To participate in this program, you are required to apply through a U.S. Government-approved sponsoring organization—such as CIEE, CetUSA or Intrax. These sponsors sometimes help participants find work, but not always. If the employer does not help the participants find housing, he or she ultimately must do it themselves.

The sponsoring organizations’ websites advertise Work and Travel as an unforgettable adventure—not just an opportunity to spend the summer in sunny America, but also to interact with Americans and master the English language. But the summer doesn’t always turn out the way it is advertised. From hearing the stories of former participants, it’s clear to me that many have had great experiences on Work and Travel. But I have also found that there are a sizable number of students who have experienced real difficulties in finding housing and jobs while in America. Many had to borrow money from relatives to afford plane tickets and other necessary expenses, and found returning this money not to be so easy. Furthermore, not everyone’s summer consisted of recreation, travel, and sightseeing. For many, this vacation turned out to be hard work and stress.

After returning from Russia, I had almost forgotten about Work and Travel, when, two weeks ago, the program suddenly reappeared in my life. I received a call from Yulduz, a friend I met in Kyrgyzstan who now lives in Washington, D.C. She told me the following story: her sister, also a resident of the American capital, met a young Ukrainian man named Alexander. Alexander had come to a small town in Maine on Work and Travel to work in a restaurant kitchen. But it turned out that his employer hired too many foreign workers, so Alexander only received around 30 hours of work a week (and sometime only 25), even though he had been promised 40.

Because the town was small, it was almost impossible to find supplementary work. Alexander remembered he had an acquaintance in Washington, and came here in search of new work and housing. According to Yulduz, Alexander needed urgent assistance finding at least temporary housing.

“If I had stayed in Maine, I wouldn’t have been able to cover my expenses,” said Alexander in the occasionally uncertain English of a foreign student. “At first, when I arrived in Washington I was sometimes in despair, but I decided not to give up.”

Yulduz asked me to help Alexander. From personal experience, I couldn’t help but empathize with him. Last summer, I went to Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan, to work as a volunteer at a non-governmental organization. But, just two weeks after my arrival, violent interethnic conflict broke out and forced me to leave Osh for the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.

Arriving in Bishkek, I didn’t know what to do. I grew up in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, and I had never before found myself in such a difficult and uncertain situation. Up until I went to Bishkek, I’d never had to worry about housing and rarely had to think about finding work. I spent my first week in Bishkek staying in a hotel and looking for a new volunteer position. When I finally found one, I then had to find an apartment. Thanks to the generous help of Yulduz’s sisters, I finally met an American graduate student researching international migration in Kyrgyzstan who was looking for a roommate.

So I understood the stress Alexander was experiencing very well—being in a foreign country without housing, without a job, and without a complete mastery of the English language—and I wanted to help. I quickly sent Yulduz an email with links to online housing advertisements and the websites of universities that rent dormitory rooms to summer interns.

Fortunately, Alexander’s story has a happy ending. He found a new job as a busser in a restaurant with a sufficient number of work hour, and managed to find a temporary room in a house owned by a church. He continues to look for permanent housing, but at least his life is slowly returning to normal.

“All the same, I like this program [Work and Travel],” said Alexander, who has not lost his optimism. “I’m just glad I was able to handle this situation.”

Alexander’s story is not unique. He knows five other students from Ukraine who came to America on Work and Travel and wound up in similar situations. During Yulduz’s five years living in America, she has repeatedly helped Work and Travel students from the republics of the former Soviet Union find housing in America. When her own brother came to America from Kyrgyzstan to participate in Work and Travel, Yulduz persuaded him not to go to New York and to work in Washington—so, at least, his housing problem would be solved.

“I didn’t want him to be alone in the big city. I would have worried about him,” said Yulduz.

Natalia, who is from Russia, is already almost an expert on Work and Travel. She participated in the program three times—in 2003, 2004, and 2005—and also worked in a student exchange center in Moscow. She believes that you can gain important life experience from Work and Travel. Today, Natalia lives in America and speaks English almost without an accent, and it is near impossible to tell she is from another country. Her fluency in English is a direct result of her participation in Work and Travel. Accrording to Natalia, she used to teach English in a middle school in Russia. Even so, after arriving in the United States for the first time, she found herself in a another linguistic world, where people spoke differently from the British English commonly taught in Russian schools and universities. Natalia also faced the problem of finding house, and spent her first few days in America staying at a hotel. However, after overcoming all these difficulties and gaining personal experience in three different summers on the Work and Travel program, Natalia now has the ability to share tips with future participants:

“Living and working in a foreign country is an incomparable experience that allows you to learn a lot, but Work and Travel is not suitable for everyone,” said Natalia. “For some, this kind of experience builds character, and in others it reveals less attractive character traits, because not everyone can find a good way out of difficult situations.”

Natalia thinks that participants sometimes have unrealistic expectations. They hear good impressions from friends and relatives who have returned from America, and they don’t realize that there are real difficulties in America. Natalia is very thankful for the experience she gained working in the U.S., but she would give future participants one main piece of advice: be ready for everything, including difficulties.

“Be prepared, if necessary, not to eat enough, not to sleep enough, live surrounded by strangers, and work 70 hours for week. Work and travel will absolutely change your life,” said Natalia. “This program is a chance to learn a lot, grow up, meet people from all over the world, learn how to achieve your goals, and reevaluate things in your own life.”

In my opinion, potential participants in Work and Travel should heed the advice of Natalia. Life in America—especially for those working in the lowest-paying jobs—is far from easy. The difficulties and problems that Russian students often face are also the everyday reality for many Americans. Therefore, to solve these problems, do as the Americans do themselves—when setting off on a trip like this, carefully think over your plans, plan your finances, and be prepared to change them on the fly. Then life won’t take your by surprise.

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