Riding their bikes and working low-wage jobs across the Grand Strand, international students have become vital during the tourism community’s summer months.
Widely known as J-1 students, named after the U.S. visa program that allows them to work in the U.S., more than 3,000 young adults from countries across the globe come to Horry County each summer, according to the federal Department of State, which oversees the program.
The program is billed as a cultural exchange, and many enjoy their time so much that they come back in subsequent years, but some go back to their home country feeling deceived and disillusioned after enduring long work hours for little pay and living in cramped, overpriced apartments.
Sitting outside their room in late July at the Fountainbleu Inn, Simona Croitoru and George Ilee watch some fellow J-1 students enjoy the pool, while they try to enjoy their brief break from work.
Both from Romania, they say they’re just waiting for summer to end at this point as they’re each working about 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ilee worked with a J-1 visa in Atlantic City last year, which he said was more enjoyable, while Croitoru is in America for the first time.
“I thought it would be more fun,” Croitoru said, before she and Ilee agree that there’s no chance they will return to Myrtle Beach after they leave.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) produced a report in 2014 about the J-1 visa program called “Culture Shock,” where they note the program was created as a tool of diplomacy, but has turned into “little more than a source of cheap labor for employers.”
International students often spend thousands of dollars in travel and registration fees to sponsors, which are federally approved organizations responsible for the students’ job placement and subsequent oversight.
Niamh Byrne, a 19-year-old student from Ireland, said her sponsor contacts her once every 30 days just to make sure she’s still at the same job and no major issues have arisen.
Employers benefit from not having to pay payroll taxes for these workers — a savings of about 8 percent on their total expenses, according to the report.
Meredith Stewart, a SPLC attorney who helped compile the report, noted that these young international students are often away from their homes and working for the first time in their lives.
The SPLC helps students file complaints to the Department of State about work and living conditions, and they currently represent a group of 11 J-1 students that worked in Myrtle Beach in 2016.
According to the complaint, the students from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica were misled by recruiters that promised them specific jobs and comfortable housing and didn’t follow through.
Nicolas Florentino, one of the Dominican students from the complaint, told The Sun News through a translator that his sponsor, American Work Adventures (AWA), promised he would be working at least 32 hours per week at the Oceans One Resort, but they actually placed him with Grandeur Management.
Grandeur Management, a consultant and service provider for hotels and resorts in South Carolina and Georgia, sent him to do varying tasks at other hotels for no more than 30 hours each week, which meant he could not make enough money to cover the costs of the program and living in Myrtle Beach, he said.
Florentino got a second job, as many J-1 students do, at Taco Bell in order to break even by the end of the summer.
“I would not have come if I knew this is what I was going to be doing,” he said.
SPLC has requested that the department order AWA reimburse the students’ registration fees and ban the sponsor and Grandeur Management from future participation in the program.
Stewart, who’s working on the case, said they haven’t heard back from the department and that its investigations into complaints are needlessly shrouded in secrecy.
Nathan Arnold, a spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said in an email that each situation is unique when dealing with a complaint, and it’s most effective for students to resolve their issues directly with their sponsors.
The staff that oversees the Exchange Visitor Program has more than doubled since 2011, including the creation of a new office devoted solely to handling complaints and incidents, Arnold said.
AWA and Grandeur Management did not respond to requests for comment regarding the complaint.
SPLC made several recommendations to improve the program, including capping the number of students accepted into the program, transferring oversight to the Department of Labor and Industry and requiring employers to pay for the student’s registration fees.
Myrtle Beach offering aid
As a way to help the students coming to the area, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce contracted Kelly Guyton to serve as a community liaison.
Guyton, operating under Strand International Student Services, said she helps coordinate efforts of students, employers, volunteers, police, housing officials and sponsors. This is her first year in the role, as MBPD Chief Amy Prock previously handled those responsibilities before becoming chief last year.
Guyton helps organize weekly orientations for incoming students and regularly fields calls from them about issues ranging from bicycle crashes to lost wallets, she said.
She said she also attends the biweekly All Nations Cafe gatherings at Seacoast Vineyard Church, where students can sit down for a free meal, and volunteers organize various activities.
Christy Morris, the primary organizer of All Nations Cafe, said she started volunteering with the program about five years ago because she notices little interaction between all the international students and local residents.
She said the biggest misconception is that these students come and steal Americans’ jobs, but the reality is that the jobs they’re taking are the ones nobody else seems to want.
Guyton noted that, even with the thousands of J-1 students who often work two jobs, many tourism-related businesses are still having difficulties filling positions.
Ryan Dzergoski, general manager at Myrtle Beach Zipline Adventures, said the vast majority of his summer employees are J-1 students, and he’s not sure how he’d operate his business without them.
“It sucks when they leave,” he said. “I have to really scramble to find workers (because locals) don’t want to work.”
Morris said the most common issue she hears from students is finding safe, affordable housing.
Promthida Rerkchavee, a 22-year-old from Thailand, said she had to move last year from her original house because the woman renting her and three other J-1 students a spare room was constantly smoking, drinking and partying with her friends all day.
Back again this year, Rerkchavee is working at Sea Mist Resort, where she was also initially staying, but she and several other Thai students working there quickly moved to a mobile home a couple miles away because they felt the rooms were too crowded at four to a room.
Mateusz Zochowski, a Polish student working as a lifeguard in Myrtle Beach for the fourth time, said he once lived in a basement with 25 other J-1 students paying $90 per week for rent. He now pays $100 per week and has seven roommates, he said.
Toni Ivic, a 23-year-old from Croatia, found comfortable, affordable housing living just with one American in the Sterling Village Condo Complex.
He said the key is to rely on other students’ experiences, as the J-1 students have a Facebook group where they post reviews about landlords, some who have a reputation for not returning security deposits or increasing rent without warning.
Travel and culture
Despite the long hours and sometimes sketchy housing, most students speak favorably of their time in Myrtle Beach.
Witsarut Vardkien, a 21-year-old Thai student who works with Rerkchavee at the Sea Mist Resort, said he’d like to make enough money to break even, but he’s more concerned with enjoying American culture.
He took a second job as game operator at Family Kingdom Amusement Park but quit after five days because he realized he didn’t have any free time to enjoy the beach.
Guyton said the J-1 program is set up to allow the students to work for 90 days and travel for 30 days, and she encourages all the students to take advantage of that travel time.
New York, Los Angeles, Disney World and Las Vegas are among the popular destinations for the J-1 students to visit during those 30 days.
David Weissman: @WeissmanMBO; 843-626-0305