These volunteers make international students at Delmarva beaches feel welcome. COVID-19 canceled their plans

Emily Lytle
Delaware News Journal

Across the globe in Amman, Jordan, fourth-year electrical engineering student Laith Bdour is hoping to come to the Delaware beaches to work and travel this summer.

He is one of many international students from countries like Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey who typically travel to coastal Delaware and Maryland to work in hotels and restaurants from May to August.

But so much about this year remains unknown for students like Bdour. Most of the embassies and consulates in their home countries are still shuttered due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, delaying the approval of J-1 visas needed to travel to the U.S.

“We are worried about the situation, the pandemic, and we hope that the embassies will start working again, and that we will have the visa appointment soon,” said Bdour, who has been talking with another student who also plans to come to Delaware. “We don’t want to … postpone to a time when we can’t book our (flights).”

Summer workers with J-1 visas have been a staple of beach summers for years. Russian student Anna Efanova works the Whack-A Mole game at Funland in 2008.

Other students like Kaya Ilknur in Turkey and Christine Monori in Romania say they have their papers all ready to go, but they are in a similar sense of limbo.

Back in Rehoboth Beach and the surrounding resort towns that become temporary homes to these summer transplants, the volunteers and businesses who support the students also don’t know what to expect this summer.

The International Student Outreach Program in the Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach area is made up of mostly retired volunteers who serve about 200 meals per week, help arrange bicycles and host trips to baseball games or nearby sites in Washington or Philadelphia for the students.

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This year, though, the organizers of the International Student Outreach Program decided to cancel the program – largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and doubts about how many students will be able to come. 

While a normal summer might attract around 1,000 students to work in businesses between Lewes and Fenwick Island, only a dozen were able to come last year after travel restrictions, said Debbie Donovan, co-director of the International Student Outreach Program.

When Donovan and her co-director Sue Sprague asked their travel abroad contacts about how many students they expected this year, they were also unsure, saying it could be anywhere between 2019 and 2020 levels. 

Sprague said they heard this summer could likely bring more employers seeking seasonal employees than students are available.

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While the U.S. Department of State sets the guidelines for most of these work-and-travel programs, nonprofits like the Council on International Educational Exchange are known as sponsor organizations because the students will pay them a fee to help arrange a job and set them up in America.

Phil Simon, vice president of professional exchange programs at the Council on International Educational Exchange, said in late February that no students in their program have approved visas at this point. The later the embassies wait to open, he said, the fewer students will be able to come.

And there are still several countries from which the U.S. is not allowing visitors at this time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It would be guesswork to say how many will come this summer,” Simon said, but if one thing is for sure, “it won’t be the normal volume.”

COVID-19 related challenges 

While the overarching reason for suspending the support program was tied to this uncertainty, Donovan and Sprague agreed that several factors played into the decision. Most, they said, were related to the pandemic.

At this time, the State Department requires anyone traveling to the U.S. to get tested for COVID-19, but they do not have to get the vaccine before arriving. Knowing this, and recognizing that most International Student Outreach Program volunteers are older residents, the organizers said they were thinking of how best to protect the people who make the support program possible.

The CDC is also requiring anyone who travels to the U.S. from another country to self-quarantine for a full seven days. Donovan and Sprague said this further complicates housing for students.

An international student visits the Rehoboth Beach Police Department as part of the International Student Outreach Program.

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“Housing has been, and probably always will be, an issue,” Sprague said. “And since the pandemic, it’s gotten even worse.”

Often as many as 20 students may stay in one house to reduce housing costs, but that’s not practical if the students need to quarantine from each other. Sprague said she has heard from other support groups that many property owners who normally rent to these students are now selling because the housing market is doing so well.

If more students come this year, program volunteers worry about where they will live.

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Sprague and Donovan also knew they wouldn’t be able to host the trips to nearby cities they typically plan, and they didn’t want to deprive the students of that cultural experience.

Still, Simon said the cultural aspects and motivation to come to the U.S. go beyond a trip to see the Liberty Bell. While he said support groups like ISOP are invaluable to the students, it’s the relationships they build with employers and friends that have the most lasting impact. 

Even if the experience looks different this year, that opportunity will still be there for students.

A scene in Rehoboth Beach during the 2020 summer season. Many international students come to the Delaware beaches to work in retail, restaurants and the hospitality industry.

“The more these exchange visitors have an opportunity to get to know Americans, the better their experience will be,” he said. 

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Volunteers and employers will often say that the experience talking with the students and hearing their stories is just as rewarding.

“They’re very bright young people, and (it’s) very enjoyable to be around them,” said Dan Casapulla, a volunteer and coordinator of the bike program with the International Student Outreach Program. 

Bicycles rolling forward

With support and funding from the Delaware Department of Transportation, the bike program has grown over the years to loan free bikes and offer related services to the students, whether they have a flat tire or a mangled bike.

Typically, the coordinators host a safety course with help from Rehoboth police to make sure the students know how to safely ride on busy highways and roads in Delaware. Last year, those courses could not happen due to the pandemic.

As Casapulla and his co-coordinator Bob Smiles wait to see how many students come, they said with confidence that they will provide bikes to any students who need them.

“There will probably be a few this year,” Casapulla said. “We’ll be more than happy to provide bikes for them.”

Preparing for the unknown

Like many of these volunteers, Tina Passieu said she builds strong relationships each summer with the students who work at her restaurants, becoming like another mother to about 40 students. 

As office manager for The Cottage Cafe and Bethany Boathouse in Bethany Beach, Passieu has been working with international students for nine years. Last year, she had no students and said it was very difficult.

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“The ones that we did have were great employees, but it gets to the point that they’re burnt out because you’re working them so much because we just don’t have the coverage,” she said. 

The Bethany Boathouse, located just outside of Bethany Beach, is one of many restaurants that hire international students in the summer.

She agreed with representatives from the chambers of commerce in Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Lewes who said they are worried about businesses having the staff to keep up with an expected busy summer season. They said these students are vital to these beach businesses that typically struggle to find enough part-time and seasonal employees locally.

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“We are very concerned about a strong workforce as we start up again this season, as we head into the season,” said Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Just like the students, businesses await news from sponsor organizations and international embassies about how many students may be able to come and what their experience – like housing and quarantine requirements  – will look like.

Want to help or need more information?

For more information about the bike program, email bicycles4students@gmail.com.

The website www.j1rehoboth.com will also be updated with more information as it becomes available.

Does your business hire international students in the summer? Are you an international student hoping to come to the Delaware or Maryland beaches to work? Contact Emily Lytle, who covers Sussex County, at elytle@doverpost.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.