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Dickinson second only to Bismarck in hosting international Summer Work Travel students

Summer Work Travel students who come to Dickinson to work at McDonald's get to live at the old convent between Trinity High School and Rocky Butte Park, shown here Thursday in Dickinson. The students here for a traditional American summer break have left and new students aren't expected for another six weeks or so.

In order to fill in the gaps in workers brought on by challenges by the western North Dakota oil boom, some area businesses have been looking overseas for help.

About three years ago, Mike Kelley and Dale Smith found the J-1 Summer Work Travel program through the Department of State and decided to see if the cultural exchange program would work for Kelley's McDonald's in Dickinson.

"Actually, we stumbled across it on the Internet," said Smith, who is the operations director for Kelley's McDonald's. "And it sounded like a program that would help fit our business needs.

"Staffing a restaurant in western North Dakota is getting harder and harder and here's a group of people who want to come to our country, learn about the American culture and, at the same time, they want to generate some income to help pay for their expenses to come over here."

Students from all over the world have the opportunity to come to the U.S. for a three- to four-month period to work and tour the country during their major school break, which occur at different times of the year.

"Typically with the Summer Work Travel program, we have a three-month long period where they are working and earning money, and for the next month they are able to go out and travel throughout the United States," said Susan Pittman, spokesperson for the Department of State in Washington, D.C. "It gives them an opportunity to earn money in order to take that month and then travel throughout the United States."

In 2012, more than 1,600 people participated in the J-1 Summer Work Program in North Dakota, according to the Department of State. There were 794 students working in North Dakota during their summer breaks in June of this year, with nearly 700 of them working in the western half of the state. Dickinson hosted 126 students this summer, second in the state only to Bismarck. There were 99 students in the cities of Devils Lake, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Wahpeton combined. There were no students in Fargo.

Interaction with Americans

Businesses and students work with third-party sponsors that help match the two together. McDonald's in Dickinson works with Chicago-based Center for Cultural Interchange Greenheart. The center interviews potential workers as much as six months ahead of their scheduled arrival, Smith said.

There are requirements for both the students and their potential workplaces to meet, Pittman said.

"Wherever there is a need for people to come in to work in areas where Americans were not going to be being displaced, as an example, and where there is a high degree of tourism and a need for untrained kinds of workers," Pittman said.

Interaction with Americans is a large part of the learning process with the program, Pittman said. Those applying for a J-1 visa through the Summer Work Program must speak enough English to properly communicate with Americans, must be students and want to make connections within the U.S.

"They can't work in warehouses, they can't be in places where there may be physical danger to them. They can't work where there's any kind of exchange of bodily fluids and that sort of thing," Pittman said.

Having a good place to work with decent wages and guaranteed housing is a big draw to bring workers to places like North Dakota, Smith said. Students will even request to return to North Dakota.

"Your reputation kind of proceeds you, if you're perceived as a good employer," Smith said. "We really have no problems with the sponsors finding cultural exchange students with us."

"I think we've had something like -- I think we're at 73,000 students that have come over here this summer in order to be able to actually experience the American culture and our country, and have been able to go back home with those experiences and tell what a great country we have," Pittman said.


The students here now on what would be considered a traditional summer break in the U.S. have wrapped up their work for the season and it will be about six weeks until more students come for the next session, said Kari Jahner, housing director at Dickinson Catholic Schools, which hosts McDonald's international workers.

McDonald's partnered with Dickinson Catholic Schools to utilize the empty convent near Trinity High School to house its J-1 exchangees, Smith said.

"It's the perfect setting -- it's like a dormitory setting for them," Smith said. "They pay the rent and all the other incidental costs to the Dickinson Catholic Schools."

In addition to being a convent, the building has housed teachers, nuns and even a school superintendent at one point, Jahner said. The building has sat empty at other times.

"It's a way to make some extra money for Trinity, which is nice," Jahner said.

Because the accommodations are so plush, the students have begun calling the convent the "McMansion," Smith said. Best of all, it's close to work. There are bicycles available for their use, or they can walk the 5 minutes to work.

Learning about cultures

While the students are in the U.S. to learn about American culture, those that work with them have an opportunity to learn about many different cultures from across the world, Smith said.

"It's exciting to learn that people really aren't a lot different internally from one

another. It's the geo-political spectrum that makes us think people are so different,"

Smith said.

Many of the students use the program to fulfill academic requirements to learn about other cultures in diplomatic majors, Smith said.

"There's a lot of potential entrepreneurs that are coming in here," Pittman said. "I know that there are a number of people looking at public affairs for their own countries. Typically a lot of government types of positions that they're looking at -- but there's all kinds."

In Dickinson, Smith and Kelley have found the program benefits a philosophy they've shared for nearly 30 years.

"McDonald's is not the hamburger business, it's the people business," Smith said. "We can't run our business without people."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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