Room 225 at the Pineapple Inn in Williamsburg was buzzing with energy Wednesday afternoon.
A half-dozen twenty-something-year-olds from the Dominican Republic milled around the motel room, speaking their native Spanish, laughing and relaying their plans for the next four months in America.
Some passed around a giant stuffed teddy bear, while others microwaved lunch and tested their English in brief conversations.
“In just a few days, it’s really beautiful here,” said Karin Martinez, a 24-year-old civil engineering student at Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. Martinez arrived in Williamsburg last week and will work at the Historic Powhatan Resort this summer.
For the next three to four months, the energetic students will join the American workforce, fueling the area’s hospitality and service industry as tourism picks up for the season.
The students are among about 1,500 visitors from other countries who hold a J-1 visa, a non-immigrant visa that allows individuals to participate in work-and-study-based exchange visitor programs
Under the program, international college students will funnel into Williamsburg this month, filling jobs and learning about life in America.
“These are the college-educated future leaders of our world,” said Amy Lee, manager of the Pineapple Inn & Housing Center. “This is not a work program — it’s a cultural exchange program.”
For years, Williamsburg has welcomed J-1 visa holders to the area.
Last year, 10,878 visitors from other countries entered Virginia on a J-1 visa, over 1,000 of which came to Williamsburg, according to the J-1 visa Exchange Visitor Program website.
One of last year’s J-1 students, 21-year-old Ruth De Lacruz, a citizen of the Dominican Republic and student at Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo.
This is De Lacruz’s second year working in the United States under a J-1 visa; this year, she will work at Cook Out.
“The first time, I liked it a lot,” she said. “I met other people from other countries.”
This year, the Williamsburg area will receive about 1,500 J-1 workers to fill various seasonal jobs in the area, such as staff at Busch Gardens, housekeepers at local hotels, servers and cooks at restaurants, and more, Lee said.
Of those 1,500 workers, about 250 of them — all students — will be housed at the Pineapple Inn under the International Student Outreach Program for Greater Williamsburg. This is the first year the Pineapple Inn has joined the student outreach program, although it has hosted J-1 students for several years.
In the past, students from China, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, Taiwan, eastern European countries, the Philippines and more have worked in Williamsburg under a J-1 visa, Lee said.
Some students started arriving last week, but 11 more from the Philippines arrived Wednesday night, Lee said.
Martinez said she is excited to immerse herself in American culture — including trying Italian pasta dishes, which are different than ones in the Dominican Republic.
“I want to know how life is in America,” Martinez said.
In De Lacruz’s eyes, participating in the student outreach program fosters her independence away from her family. Back home in the Dominican Republic, she lives with her mother and does not have a job.
“My favorite part is —” De Lacruz said before looking to a friend, searching for the right word. “— Is my independence. It’s my money, my bills, my job.”
Lee said the students each pay $75 per week for their room at the Pineapple Inn. Each room holds three to four people.
Most of the J-1 students find jobs through Mastercorp, a hospitality services partner that provides housekeeping, maintenance, floor care, laundry, commercial services and more to various hospitality businesses.
“The summer economy would be absolutely decimated without those 1,500 people [here on J-1 visas in Williamsburg],” Lee said.
Tony Ferrer, a 23-year-old student at Universidad Tecnológica de Santiago in the Dominican Republic, said he is visiting the United States to become more independent and improve his English.
Ferrer has been to the United States before with his family, but this is his first year as a J-1 student.
Ferrer will work at the Historic Powhatan Resort as a housekeeper, and in his free time, he will visit historic sites and enjoy the pool at the Pineapple Inn.
“It’s a very beautiful country,” he said. “And it’s cooler here.”
While students come to the United States to work, the program is more than just that: Students learn about American culture and become ambassadors for own their countries.
“It makes Williamsburg have an international flair,” Lee said.
Lee said one of her goals for the student outreach program is to eliminate “misperceptions” about the international students seen around Williamsburg during the summer months. Those with J-1 visas are not illegal immigrants, and are a part of the United States’ workforce, Lee said.
“There are some misperceptions about these students,” Lee added. “These are kids who spend thousands of dollars in our localities each year.”
“We want them to leave Williamsburg and say ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to come back.’”
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