The Grueling Lives of Foreign Students Who Spend Summers Working in America

They go to the best universities in their home countries. But in America, they're just "the help."

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Jun 15 2016, 2:41pm

Nikoleta, a Bulgarian student from Plovdiv and one of the main characters in 'The Summer Help,' working as a housekeeper in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Still via 'The Summer Help'

When Melody Gilbert, an American professor, taught at a prestigious university in Bulgaria four years ago, she didn't expect her students to fall asleep in her class.

"After summer break, students are supposed to be relaxed and happy and comfortable," Gilbert told VICE. Instead, "the first week a lot of them were really, really tired."

The reason, it turned out, was that many of her students had spent the summer pulling 80 to 100 hour workweeks at minimum wage jobs in the United States.

The students come to the US on the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, which allows (mostly young) foreigners from select countries to temporarily work in the United States for the purpose of "cultural exchange." The US grants about 300,000 of these visas each year, according to the Department of State. But rather than spending the summer like exchange students, sightseeing and making American friends, some of these students come to know America through low-wage jobs, as maids, servers, and kitchen staff. They are "the help."

Not all students on the J-1 Visa Program have a negative experience, and for some, the summer amounts to an endless party. But for others—especially students from poor, non-English-speaking countries like Bulgaria—the experience can feel like a raw deal. In a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, some students said they felt "deceived" or "exploited" by the program, and in 2011, hundreds of J-1 Visa workers protested unfair wages at the Hershey's plant where they worked. "There is no cultural exchange," one Chinese undergraduate told the New York Times."It is just work, work faster, work."

Gilbert turned this phenomenon into a documentary called The Summer Help, which follows some of her Bulgarian students as they leave their country, often for the first time, to work in the US for the summer. One pair of students, Elena and Nikoleta, spend the summer working as hotel maids in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As they settle into their new lives, working for Americans on vacation (who are not always welcoming), we watch them reconcile their expectations with the reality of being a foreigner in the United States.

VICE spoke with Gilbert about her experience making the film, the students she followed, and the contrasting realities of living and working in America.

Elena from Bulgaria, one of the main characters in the documentary, 'The Summer Help,'makes pizza at her second job. Still via 'The Summer Help'

VICE: The J-1 Program is meant to be about cultural exchange between Americans and foreigners, but these students come and basically just work for eighty hours a week in multiple jobs. Who benefits the most from the program: the students, or those who hire them?
Melody Gilbert: When I make a film, I'm not judging. I'm just showing the experience. It is up to you to decide how you see [the J-1 program]. There are many advantages to struggling and working hard and pushing yourself through pain. There are wonderful things that can come from that—no matter where you come from. There are other people who feel taken advantage of in the end. It's up to the students to decide if it was worth it to them. What I see from my students is that there are a few advantages, including making a lot of money to support their struggling families in these Eastern European countries. There's also personal growth. I'm not critical of [the program]. I'm not positive about it.

One thing that shocked me in the beginning is that you had to pay to come to the US to work these minimum wage jobs. You pay a fee to a job placement company, you pay for your airfare, and then you pay for your own housing and meals. You pay for everything—for this opportunity to come to America and work minimum wage jobs. Some people succeed in making the money back and some people don't.

What was the goal of the film?
The aim was to show the experiences these students had. Also, for me, it was interesting to see how they saw us—Americans. At first, I thought I was making a film just about them [the students] and their experiences. Then I thought, Gee. Look at how we are, how they see us, how wasteful we are, how fake we are with our fake smiles and good mornings and all that stuff. It was very interesting to observe that.

The two girls you mostly follow throughout the film—how did their perception of America change from beginning to end?
They ended up having completely different experiences. In the beginning, they are both excited and open-minded. The only reference you have for America is what you see on TV or in movies. I think the first week, it is exciting to be here and little by little you find out... For one of the girls, there was someone at her job cleaning a hotel who lied about her—about something she did. Being a foreigner and newly arrived in the country, you can't really do anything about that. You learn to adjust your thinking and how you deal with those things. If she complained about that man who was American, she probably would have been fired. She ended up leaving that job anyway—there were trust issues, and just [in general] anywhere is not what you think it is going to be. I mean, is America ever what people think it is going to be?

"I thought, 'Look at how they see us, how wasteful we are, how fake we are with our fake smiles and good mornings and all that stuff.'" — Melody Gilbert

In your film, one of the girls enjoyed the experience and the other did not–why do you think that was?
It could just be where they went. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina is perhaps not the friendliest place for foreigners. That could be why, but I don't really know. It shows that you can have different experiences depending on where you are placed and the job you get. I think the [other students in my documentary] in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Martha's Vineyard—many of them had really positive experiences. Even though it is hard work, it's a nicer environment. There are a lot of wealthy people who treat them nicer and gave them bigger tips, and they felt a part of the community. In Provincetown, some of the students went back four or five times.

In Myrtle Beach, I didn't see a lot of students who felt that way there. It just so happens that the two main characters in the film were best friends, went to the same place, worked the same jobs, and had completely different experiences. Sometimes it is your personality or the places where you are and their tolerance for international students. Sometimes they are welcomed, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are just working. Sometimes they are a part of the community.

For the Bulgarian students, how much of the incentive is financial? Or is it the cultural experience?
It is financial, absolutely. They have the opportunity to make, in one summer, what their parents might make in one or two years. The mom makes $8 a day, and she [the student] comes to the US and makes $8 an hour. That's progress, right?

Coming here for the summer is an opportunity to get ahead. Once they are here, they are also motivated to experience the culture, to get to know people and try to get people to know them. But most people aren't really interested. They just see them as workers with funny name tags. One girl from Kazakhstan was working at a bar, and the people she was waiting on asked, 'Where are you from?' And she said, 'Kazakhstan.' Someone said, 'Is that even a country?' She has learned to laugh at this and realizes that you can educate people about your country too. I wanted to show that it is an opportunity for interaction. Sometimes it creates more, and sometimes it doesn't.

But some American bosses also saw these students as family. Was that common?
One boss who owned a fish store—when I first spoke to him, he was the typical, 'Oh yeah, doesn't know where his workers are from.' Then the more I talked to him, the more I realized he felt the same way I felt about the students. He could see that they were special people. They were not just workers—that they gave up a lot to come here for the summer to the US, that they are the future journalists and lawyers and bankers and doctors of their countries, and he could see that. He continued to invite students who even stayed in the family home with his family. Some of the employers are really lovely, and some aren't. Driving around the country, which I did for five thousand miles, I went to check where all these students lived. Some lived in places that had six or seven in a room. Others had a nicer environment. I wasn't there to judge it, but just to document their experiences.

At a few points in the film, there seems to be some sort of camaraderie between the Bulgarian students and other immigrants—such as workers from Central America who have been here for years. Is there a special relationship or understanding there?
There is a point in the film when one of the girls gets invited to a party by one of her Mexican co-workers, who is a cleaner at the hotel they work at. And I think the other people were saying to her, 'Why are you going to a Mexican person's birthday party?' She felt more connected to them because they were all here for the same reason. 'They were all there to work,' is what she said. Also, they are a very close family. They stick together, and it reminded her of her family life back home.

Follow Serena Solomon on Twitter.

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