Work, Travel, and COVID-19


5 minute read

A global pandemic, national civil unrest, rising unemployment, and a presidential proclamation threatening the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program all came to a head during the summer of 2020. Despite all of this, InterExchange welcomed a small number of international students on the Exchange Visitors Program.

In previous seasons participants had their pick of a variety of cultural activities to shape their experience in the U.S., such as dinners with coworkers, outings with friends, visits to national parks, concerts, and sporting events. During the summer 2020 season, however, social distancing guidelines, limited public events, and travel restrictions made for a very different experience. We kept in touch with participants throughout their programs to offer guidance and ensure they were able to experience American culture amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.

Participants we spoke to described the Americans that they met or worked alongside as outgoing, curious, friendly, and kind. Students told us Americans were easy to talk to. These interactions help develop mutual understanding and create lasting ties which unite us into a global community.

The Summer Work Travel program brings the international community together. We connected with participants from Russia, Türkiye, and Jamaica to hear their stories and get their impressions of the United States and how this experience had changed them. Even though it’s a quieter USA, these participants still made the most of their time and enjoyed local attractions. We have been keeping an extra close eye on this courageous group to ensure they are getting the most of their summer, and their stories represent a snapshot of the diverse cultures that make up the Summer Work Travel program.

Man on paddle board in harbor
Burak in Lake George, New York.
Image courtesy of Burak

Burak Kurtulmus, a Turkish participant studying Electrical and Electronics Engineering who has been working at The Lake Motel in Lake George, NY said that the Americans he’s met while at work and at the lake are incredibly friendly and kind. “They are aware that I traveled from very far away and am without family here. I feel very welcomed by them.” Burak and his American friends have shared their family stories and discussed the history and politics of Türkiye and the U.S.

It's harder to communicate with people because everyone is wearing masks ... but I still feel that I’m able to make good relationships with the guests and my coworkers.
— Burak Kurtulmus

Burak worked in Estes Park, CO in 2018 and said about this summer “it’s harder to communicate with people because everyone is wearing masks … but I still feel that I’m able to make good relationships with the guests and my coworkers.”

Young woman jumps on street in front of tall buildings
Alina in Times Square, New York City.
Image courtesy of Alina

Alina Kononova, who is studying Linguistics in Russia and working in Atlantic Beach, NY. was not going to pass up an opportunity to explore American culture while working at Lawrence Beach Club. She told us “I am so glad to be here in these hard times … People here smile a lot no matter what happens, and I really like it!” Alina has been busy this summer soaking up all that her host community has to offer. She told us that upon “arriving in the United States, I immediately plunged into a real American environment and met many people.”

I am so glad to be here in these hard times... People here smile a lot no matter what happens, and I really like it!
— Alina Kononova

The highlight for most of our participants’ SWT programs is the post program travel period, which allows participants 30 days to travel throughout the U.S. Students often plan visits to big cities and major landmarks. This year, participants’ options have been curtailed due to travel restrictions and quarantine advisories. Instead, participants have explored locally and taken regional trips. Alina told us that she and her friend Viktoriia used their days off to travel to NYC to go shopping and see the sights they’ve only seen in movies. Alina has also been going to the beach and hanging with coworkers and her Spanish roommates. Her job has also been a key exchange experience for Alina “The members of the beach club are very nice. We have conversations about Russia. They make me feel welcome here.”

Three men in masks on a boat with sunset in background
Stepan in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Image courtesy of Stepan

A successful program means something different to each participant. Commonly, we hear that participants seek to practice their English while others are looking to travel the nation. As a sponsor, we strive to ensure that the participants have all they need to have a safe and fun summer.

Xavier Rowe, a Jamaican participant studying Accounting in Kingston and working in Sagamore Beach, MA, has also been busy this summer visiting the beach and learning about American coffee culture while working at Dunkin Donuts. Xavier has commented on Americans’ love affair with their morning iced coffee. Coming from Jamaica Xavier shared that “…in my culture because of our background as an English colony, we drink hot tea more often. But Americans love their coffee, and especially iced coffee.”

Xavier is also in the U.S. for a second summer. She was driven to return to the program to meet people of different backgrounds from her own, and because of her love of traveling. She told us that this year “InterExchange made it way easier for me compared to last year. The flow of things was much easier … Even though this year was shorter, it was more enjoyable because everything is so easy.” Keeping in close contact with participants has been more important than ever to ensure participants like Xavier can experience a safe and normal summer.

Man stands on platform in front on amusement park
Nikita at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.
Image courtesy of Nikita

A summer of social distancing and self isolation, thrown together with a program that supports seasonal tourism and international travel may seem like unlikely bedfellows. Despite these challenges, the Summer Work Travel program has continued to create meaningful cultural exchange experiences. Our participants have truly shown their adaptability, maturity, and cultural understanding by being plunged into the unknown and coming out triumphantly with memories to last a lifetime. The InterExchange team is currently working remotely, but the experiences and photos participants shared with us have inspired us. SWT students will have a brighter memory of this tumultuous time in history, and it’s the stories of participants like Burak, Alina, and Xavier that highlight the power of people to people exchange programs.

Leslie Colossi, Aishat Keshiro & Alexis Butts By

Leslie Colossi, Aishat Keshiro and Alexis Butts are members of InterExchange's Work & Travel USA program.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation