Okoboji hopes to improve local J1 Program
Students from all over the world have flocked to the Okoboji area over the past several years, as part of the J1 Program. Students fill seasonal positions at all types of Okoboji area businesses through the program.
Many in the community think of the program as a work program. In reality, it is a cultural exchange program, with a work component, under the U.S. Department of State.
Local businesses and community entities gathered Monday at the Arrowwood Resort in Okoboji to discuss how the program could be improved on a local level. Representatives of Spirit Cultural Exchange and the U.S. Department of State were on hand to facilitate the discussion.
Spirit Cultural Exchange operations supervisor Tina Frank said some communities rely heavily on a working relationship between sponsor organizations and local churches to provide resources for J1 participants. In other communities, the local chamber of commerce largely facilitates the program at the local level. Jessica Hines, Spirit Cultural Exchange account executive, said community members are the ideal group to decide how best to support an international student outreach program, or ISOP.
“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all thing,” Hines said. “For our purposes, this is not a Spirit (Cultural Exchange) ISOP program. This is an Okoboji ISOP program The last thing we want to do is come in and tell you ‘This is what you’re going to do.’”
Henry Scott, Director of Private Sector Program Administration with the Department of State, said program participation in the Okoboji area has been steady.
“Some places have experienced dips but not here,” Scott said.
He said 282 summer work and travel participants had visited Okoboji, according to data compiled in January – an increase of approximately 14.9 percent over the previous year. Scott said this may be indicative of program participants telling their friends about the Okoboji area after returning home. Some of the most common countries of origin for J1 participants in Okoboji are China, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Khazikhstan, Turkey, Thailand and the Ukraine. China dominated the 2016 season, with 82 participants.
Scott encouraged employers who are considering participation in the program to research cultural differences before students arrive. He made specific mention of Bulgarian culture, in which nonverbal cues for yes and no are reversed from an American perspective. Frank pointed out that cultural behavior in the work place will also vary among participants. She pointed to Okoboji’s top two participating countries from 2016, China and Bulgaria, and indicated the cultures bookend the spectrum of introversion and extroversion.
“I would say those two countries and how they interact (with people) is vastly different,” Frank said.
Hines discussed the realities of culture shock and how the community can help students to adjust.
“I think what sets the students experience apart is how the community accepts them,” Hines said. “They love the interaction. They love the small chats. That means the world to them.”
Participants are required to engage in a cultural activity twice each month as part of the cultural exchange program. Scott explained these activities do not need to be high-brow events.
“American culture is found in places you don’t usually think of as a cultural opportunity,” Scott said.
He said activities can be as simple as a Fourth of July picnic, a local historical site or a classic American film at a drive-in theater.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in cultural activities over the past five years, so that’s great,” Scott said.
Frank said in some communities, and orientation sessions are organized to introduce students to local law enforcement and explain local laws. She said this can be particularly important for some participants from countries where authorities cannot always be trusted.
In the Lakes area specifically, bicycle laws may be a subject of emphasis for new arrivals. Spirit Lake Police Chief Jeff Hanson said the department has hosted orientations in the past and officers patrolling at night have given away reflective vests to cyclists they encounter, but noted some problems persist.
“We really do need help from the people that house them and their employers,” Hanson said. “We will stop them multiple times on Highway 71, going to Wal-Mart or wherever … Being on the four-lane is really dangerous. We need to keep reminding them to get to the bike trails or take the back streets up there and not take the highway. That is a huge issue for us.”
Several attendees recalled the death of Iryna Shevchuk, an exchange participant from the Ukraine, who was involved in a bicycle accident June 23, 2015. Shevchuk was riding along Highway 71, wearing dark clothing with no helmet or reflectors when her bicycle was struck by a vehicle. While tragic, some at Monday’s meeting said Shevchuk’s story may spur others in the J1 Program to take bicycle safety seriously.
Other attendees were concerned with medical insurance for the students. Hines said the students are covered through their sponsor organizations, such as Spirit Cultural Exchange. However, she had heard of cases in which hospitals were not being reimbursed for treatment. Pat Holdorf, Lakes Regional Healthcare patient financial services manager, said LRH had experienced such cases. She indicated this may be due to students coming to the emergency room for non-emergency cases, which the insurance may not cover. She indicated J1 participants may not know minor issues may be covered if the participant goes to a clinic, rather than the hospital. Holdorf added insurance is a complex subject that even Americans struggle to understand.
“I think it would be very helpful if the employer accompanied the student, especially if they’re coming to the hospital,” Holdorf said.
Holdorf explained any of the clinics affiliated with the hospital will charge a flat amount to the student before they leave.
The various employers and entities broke into discussion groups for the final session of the meeting and discussed how information could be disseminated to participants in Okoboji. Hines said events centered around a meal are always popular among the teenaged travelers.
“If you advertise it with food, the J1 students will come,” she said with a laugh.
Scott encouraged local residents to tell their governmental representatives how the program benefits the community.
“Don’t miss an opportunity to tell your local representatives, especially your Washington representatives from Iowa, that this is a program that is important,” Scott said. “It doesn’t take away jobs from Americans. It really does fill a seasonal need and you see it making a difference in people’s attitudes toward foreigners.”
“That’s the ultimate goal; to get two people from two different worlds to understand each other,” she said.