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ON THE SCENE: Lake Placid welcomes J-1 workers
July 4, 2019

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Ever wonder how we have so many international students working as waiters, chambermaids, lift attendants and in our stores each summer?

Traditionally, United States colleges and primary and secondary schools organized their academic calendars around the agricultural cycle. Semesters began in September and ended in June, except for colleges, which ended in late May. They also had a two-week break over the Christmas-New Year holiday season, many having final exams early in the New Year.

All that changed under President Jimmy Carter's administration when OPEC drove up oil prices to such a degree that many educational institutions feared for their economic future. A national task force was convened that recommended schools begin earlier and close for most of January, enabling schools to reduce heating costs significantly. An unintended consequence was the economic impact this change had on the earning ability of students during the summer months and on resort communities that had long depended on student labor to serve as waiters, chambermaids, groundskeeper, caddies, lifeguards and in similar positions.

As corporate America didn't shift its vacation policies, students found themselves with few job opportunities in late May and the month of June, and resort communities not keen on hiring them if they would be leaving a job to head back to school in early to mid-August. Their summer employment tanked. Meanwhile, resort communities turned to J-1 student workers, youth coming from abroad who had the time and desire to work as employment in the U.S. had the added benefit of paying more than they could often earn at home. Plus it provided a chance to improve their English and visit the United States.

The J-1 Visitor Exchange Program was introduced under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 and managed by the U.S. Information Agency. It began by bringing scholars to teach and conduct research, usually in affiliation with a university, and to share their artistic and other knowledge. Initially, a few came over for work, mostly serving as au pairs. Over the past three decades, the number of college-age youth arriving for employment opportunities has dramatically increased to approximately 100,000 annually, coming from slightly over 200 countries.

New York state accepts the highest number of J-1 student workers, 7,100 in 2017, representing 13% of the total. Two hundred of them work in Lake Placid, filling positions vital to welcoming and caring for visitors over the summer season and often through Columbus Day.

On Tuesday morning, June 25, about 40 of the students attended a welcoming ceremony organized and hosted by the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism at the Lake Placid Conference Center. Catherine Ericson, Lake Placid marketing manager for Lake Placid and Wilmington, assisted by Mary Jane Lawrence, ROOST's chief of staff, led the event, which featured a variety of presentations by local officials and business people. Ericson began by inviting the students to use the Lake Placid Visitors Bureau as a resource to learn about any aspect of the community and open doors for them to people who could best address their needs.

The goal of the event was to welcome the youth, help them get adjusted to the community and learn what resources were available to them and help them gain a better appreciation for the focus of the community and their place in it.

"The reason we organized this is we realize, as everyone in the community does, that we continue to have a workforce shortage, especially in our high season," said Lawrence. "We thought, why don't we start a program where we embrace the workforce we have coming in so not only do they get off to a good start and have the information they need, but so they also understand the importance of the positions that they hold in the community?"

Lake Placid Deputy Mayor Art Devlin welcomed them, describing Lake Placid as a community that opens its arms to people from all around the world all year long, a tradition that began with the 1932 Winter Olympics. He said that many have come to train and compete, some deciding to make the village their home, but be they visitor, competitor and now resident, they've all left their mark on the community, benefiting the village in a variety of ways.

Lake Placid Patrol Officer Chadd Blinn invited the youth to view the police as a resource they could turn to if they had problems or questions. He said their goal was to help keep them, our visitors and residents be safe. Blinn described a variety of steps for keeping safe, such as when walking along the road, always walk on the side facing traffic. He passed out a brochure filled with safety tips and let them know that the police were available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Lake Placid Sinfonietta and High Peaks Cyclery offered discounts, the Community Bank passed out information and answered questions about setting up a saving-checking account, and the Lake Placid Public Library mentioned that one of their many resources was assistance learning English as a second language. Chris Ericson, owner of Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, and Garrick Smith, manager of the Hotel North Woods, shared tips for making their stay more enjoyable and discussed their importance and role.

"We are so glad you're here," said Smith, who has been using J-1s for about 10 years, "You are a vital component to this town being able to do what it does. At the end of every season, I invite everyone into my office to share what was the one thing you got out of this experience that you didn't expect. The one item I hear time after time is that they didn't expect how kind and nice everyone would be here."

Smith mentioned that walking along the streets, people will often smile and say hello, people who are generally interested in how their day is going.

"I invite you, while you are here, to step outside your comfort zone, smile back, and let them know how your day is going," said Smith. "Ask them how their day is going, find out where they're from. As was stated earlier, you are now ambassadors for your home, your countries, your families, and now ambassadors for Lake Placid. It's important that you carry that torch that's within each of you and each of us."

Two managers from Experience Work and Travel, a Bosnian agency that facilitates work and educational experiences abroad for Europeans, were in attendance. Both had previously worked in Lake Placid.

"I like meeting the students after they finish the program," said Sanja Vasilevic. "They are like different people. They are more mature and have learned how to deal with stressful situations. Sometimes they dress differently. They pick up so much from this culture. It's really beautiful."

"I think this session was beneficial," said her colleague, Silvana Vasic, who as a J-1 student worked in the Mirror Lake Inn dining room. "I think it will help them feel more safe, more protected and more welcome."

"I came because my friends in college told me Lake Placid's the best place to be," said Mladenka Zoranovic, 21, a business major from Bosnia who is open to taking up ski jumping or some other Olympic sport while here.

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