Williamsburg has welcomed approximately 850 Summer Work Travel participants this summer, arrival numbers that reflect pre-pandemic program participation. After nearly two years of significantly reduced program participation due to travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19, the Williamsburg community is thrilled to see the program return and is committed to creating a quality experience for international students who have made Williamsburg their choice destination for a Summer Work Travel program.
Shiela Morris, Supervisor at Busch Gardens Ambassador Housing, is new to her role at Busch Gardens, but she has a special connection with cultural exchange programs. Shiela is originally from the Philippines and first visited the U.S. on an academic exchange 15 years ago. She understands the challenges and opportunities that a cultural exchange program can provide, not only to the program participant but also to community members who engage with and befriend exchange visitors.
When Shiela took this role, she knew she wanted to create an environment where students feel a sense of belonging and connection to the community in which they're living during their 3-4 month program.
"International students play a very important role in our staffing. The program has been part of the company and community for years. It’s important to offer more than just work, to give international students the opportunity to live American culture and learn from one another."
Shiela helps organize trips to Washington DC and Virginia Beach, picnics and lemonade parties, food nights that include a specTACOler taco bar and St Patrick's Day Potato bar, movie nights and other activities to ensure students on the Summer Work Travel program at Busch Gardens gain cultural experience and have a positive summer in America. "These little activities make a difference and we hope they feel appreciated," said Shiela.
This summer, Shiela's team organized a Coffee with Cops event for the first time. The goal of the event was to help establish rapport between local law enforcement and international students, to help ensure students have a safe and successful time in the U.S. "In some countries, civilians don't trust law enforcement or they are only encountered for something serious. Additionally, there are some differences that just vary culturally. For example, in many countries it's acceptable to walk in public with a beer, or to play music loudly until 2am. These seem like little things, but we ultimately want the students to have a successful program, for them to be safe, and to understand the local laws", said Shiela.
The event was expected to host approximately 30 students. Event organizers were shocked when 150+ students attended throughout the one hour duration of the event.
"When I saw the engagement between police officers and students - playing Jenga and pool, taking pictures, trying on police vest and handcuffs, sitting in the back of the cruiser, asking questions to the police officers - I realized just how successful the event was. Students were messaging their friends to tell them to join. We expected only about 30 students but more than 150 joined!"
Officer Brandon Johnson is the Williamsburg Neighborhood Resource Officer. He and seven officers attended the event and enjoyed meeting students from all over the world. Officer Johnson commented on the success of the event:
"It was really great to talk to the students and to hear how law enforcement is different in some of their countries. We really want to establish good rapport within our community and this event is an excellent way for the students to engage with us in a casual and fun way. It was our first time to host the event and we would love to do it again. We'd love to make it a standard part of the international student program in Williamsburg. The sooner we get involved with the students, the better to help build rapport and ensure they're having a safe and successful time here."
Given the success of the event, the Williamsburg Police Department and Busch Gardens plan to partner together next year for similar events and for community welcome orientations as the students arrive early in the summer. This event is an example of the positive impact Community Support Groups (CSGs) can have on a participant's program.
Intrax has helped establish several Summer Work Travel Community Support Groups (CSGs) across the nation, in cities like Williamsburg that see a seasonal increase in student populations. These CSGs play an essential role in participant health, safety and welfare, while on program as these groups often include members from the local Chamber of Commerce, Police Department, Fire Department, local Health official, Transportation authority, city leadership and multiple visa sponsors.
Abigail Palmer, Communications Manager at Intrax, a J-1 visa sponsor, said "Intrax is thrilled to work with Busch Gardens as an Intrax Host Employer. It's great to see the community engagement for this event and I hope it inspires more host companies and communities to host similar events.
"Each seasonal community is essentially competing to attract Summer Work Travel participants. Establishing robust cultural events, safe and affordable housing, safe and reliable transportation - these all make an impact in student recruitment as students consider their Summer Work Travel destination."
Cheers to Williamsburg Police Department and Busch Gardens for brewing up a fun and quality event!
Learn more about the Intrax Summer Work Travel Program.