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Door County’s International Summer Flavor: Student Workers from Abroad

Student workers from around the world come to Door County for work through the J-1Visa program every summer, including this group that works at the Piggly Wiggly in Sister Bay.

Visitors and longtime residents alike find that Northern Door County takes on an international flavor during the summer, not from the Scandinavian heritage that is celebrated by goats on a roof or by fish boils, but rather from a temporary workforce that draws upon university students from all over the world.

“And where are you from?” a customer at the Piggly Wiggly store in Sister Bay will ask a checkout after detecting an accent in otherwise flawless English.

“I am from Ukraine,” the smiling clerk might answer, or maybe from Turkey, Lithuania or Thailand.

A number of businesses have turned to international student workers because American college students have become less available as employees, explained Tom Nesbitt, owner of the Piggly Wiggly, primarily because the job market requires that young people serve internships during the summer.  

Another factor is the expanding season on the peninsula, one that now begins earlier in the spring and lasts longer into the fall, times when U.S. students are in school.

“Forty-seven agencies in the country are licensed by the Department of State to issue the necessary documents,” Nesbitt explained, “for students to obtain a J-1 Visa to come work in the U.S. for a period of time and then travel.”

The first of the workers arrive in early May, he said, and have left by the end of September. The Piggly Wiggly added 22 international university students to its work crew this summer.

“The kids do a wonderful job,” Nesbitt said. And language is not a problem, because he interviews them individually using Skype and hears them speak English.

Bill McConkey, an employee at the store, works closely with the student workers. “People are nice to the kids,” he said, “lots of conversation. It gives the kids a kick when customers ask where they’re from, and then say, ‘I’ve been there!’” 

While an occasional curmudgeon might grumble, most customers are delighted by the novelty of international workers and impressed both by their intelligence and competency dealing with a culture that is new to them.

As a culmination of the season, the Pig closes early one Sunday evening and hosts a picnic for both domestic and international workers at the Sister Bay Sports Complex. The meal is a foods-of-the-world potluck.

Jay Kita, store manager, explained that students were paired according to their country of origin and given a $20 allowance to purchase groceries to make a dish for everyone else to try, using a recipe from home.

Dervil Bailey of Jamaica, Kita said, was back for his third summer working at the store. His contribution to the buffet was jerked chicken and pulled pork, both popular with American palates.

Ten countries were represented at this year’s party: China, France, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine, as well as Jamaica. (Workers from Thailand and Latin America had already returned home by the time of the event.)

In addition to sampling the potluck, students listened to music played by a DJ, used the facilities at the Sports Complex, and in general, conducted themselves as university students universally do, laughing, posing for pictures, and clowning around, enjoying the social interaction.

A few of the international students present spoke of their lives back home and their experiences in Sister Bay.

Busra “B” Arikan, from Turkey, was attracted to the job by the opportunity to further improve her English and make friends from other countries. Back home she is an international relations student at Ege University. She has experienced no problems with language in her work in the deli, and of her customers said, “Most of them are fine, and they are smiling all the time!”

She especially enjoys the people that she works with, but does not particularly care for the cleaning and closing up aspects of her job.

For the potluck, she prepared mercimek koftesi, individual portions that incorporate bulgar and are served on a lettuce leaf with a drizzle of fresh lemon.

Sister Bay “is very quiet and the people are very friendly,” noted Dervil Bailey, who works as a clerk in the deli as well as part-time assistant supervisor there. In Jamaica he is a programming major at the Vocational Training Development Institute.

He liked the chance “to be creative and do many things” but felt a challenge “when the store gets very busy and the extra pressure is on to deliver.” A memory that he will take with him: “The Bridges events that I was a part of were awesome!”

Kestutis Eidukywas, “Claude” to his fellow workers, came to Northern Door from Lithuania. He was attracted by the new experience of a real job that would allow him to practice his English; he also speaks Polish, Russian and Latin in addition to his native tongue. At Vilnius University he majors in cultural history and anthropology.

He enjoyed “people I met at the store” and has “good memories of girls!” For the most part, working as a stocker was “an easy game.”

His contribution to the potluck was balta misraine, a salad.

An economics major at Kherson State University in Ukraine, Valeriia “Lera” Korobchuk worked as a checkout cashier at the store. “I liked to speak with customers,” she said. “It’s interesting, a lot of kind people!” But at times she found answering questions in English a challenge.

She was delighted by the natural beauty of Northern Door and enjoyed “the Piggly Wiggly team. One big family!”

English presented no problem for Dimitar “Dimitry” Tanev, as the Macedonian speaks six languages, and pursues a major in marketing back home, all of the instruction in English.

His duties at the Pig include checkout, a job that allows him to interact with customers, a favorite part of his employment here, “a great place, lovely people!” he said. The confident future salesman enjoys experiencing a new culture, but doesn’t always appreciate being supervised.

He prepared musaka for the picnic.

Trying new things for the first time, such as jet skiing and tubing, provided Natalia “Natalie” Tyde of Poland with memories that she will keep from Sister Bay. At the grocery store she works at checkout, but she studies international management at the Gdansk University of Technology.

She was surprised to find that the landscape of Northern Door is actually similar to areas in Poland. And she likes her work. “We are all a big international family!” she said.

Her contribution to the potluck was schabowy, a fried pork dish.

Xin Zhang is an English major at the Beijing Union University in China and plans to work some day as a translator. He was assigned to the meat department at the Piggly Wiggly, and saw his job as an opportunity to practice his English. (He also speaks Spanish, French and ancient Hebrew, along with Chinese.)

He finds Sister Bay beautiful and was pleased to have taken a trip to Chicago.

While he enjoys working with customers, sometimes answering their questions presents a challenge. Especially he will remember “good times with my workmates.”

The armchair travelers among us have the opportunity to vicariously explore the world by pushing a shopping cart through the Piggly Wiggly store (or by frequenting the other businesses in the area that employ international students as workers). And travel, even if it’s only asking the deli clerk Where are you from?, broadens our perspective as citizens of the world.