Little did the two young women know that when they met at the airport in Beijing in early June it would be the start of a beautiful friendship.
In Qinyan Guo and Shuangyi Dai’s homeland a mountain range divides their two Chinese provinces, but in Williston their lives have converged over shopping, learning English and American fast food.
Guo, known as Carly, and Dai, who took the name Ruby, are part of a cultural exchange program that has brought 42 students (23 women and 19 men) to the city from China, Jamaica, Jordan and Moldova to work at the iconic golden arches — McDonald’s.
Chicago-based CCI Greenheart has operated since 1995, originally as a study abroad program for high school students. In 1997, the summer-work travel —or J-1 work travel — was created to provide seasonal or temporary work experiences steeped in cultural exchange.
Daniel Ebert, CCI’s vice president, said because of the oil boom communities like Williston have a need for temporary workers.
“In the oil boomtowns of North Dakota our numbers have grown because of the positive experiences. This is true Americana.”
The J-1 visa grants students a maximum of 120 days with a 30-day travel period and a 90-day work assignment in which they work an average of 32 hours a week or more. The current group of students began arriving in June on staggered dates and will return to their respective countries this fall to pursue their post-secondary academic studies. The program stipulates that students not miss school, Ebert said.
“What I really appreciate about this company is they have a situation set up where they come out and visit our sites, the workplace, and visit with the students and the people who are coordinating the housing facilities for themto make sure that it’s a real positive experience,” said Dale Smith, director of operations for the McDonald’s in Dickinson and in Williston.
Dickinson currently has 15 students or participants from China and Jamaica, 10 women and 5 men.
‘They’re just like
one of us’
For Guo and Dai, life in North Dakota revolves around their Vegas Motel room, replete with a microwave and refrigerator, and shifts at McDonald’s, working at different stations like the counter and the drive-thru. Guo has a fairly good command of the English language, and Dai speaks slowly, choosing her words with care.
“It’s difficult for me to communicate with American people,” Dai said. “I smile first to show [that I am] friendly. Then sometimes ask for help. We met a lot of kind persons to help us.”
The 21-year-olds are like many 20-somethings around the world. They enjoy shopping, seeing movies, using social media, traveling and earning money.
Guo is bubbly with a ready laugh, while Dai is more reserved and has a winsome smile. Together, they’re like a bolt of energy and goodwill.
“They’re just like one of us — no comparison. People want to be around them. As soon as they got here, even without doing their paperwork, they just wanted to work,” said McDonald’s Manager Vern Brekhus. “They’re gung-ho about getting in there, getting in the trenches.”
This is Guo’s second summer-work travel experience; last summer she was at
Hershey Park in Pennsylvania where she said she indulged in chocolate every day. This year she is one of seven participants worldwide to receive CCI’s inaugural Ambassador Scholarship. Scholars create videos, blog posts and photographs, sharing their experiences of living and working in the U.S.
Guo’s father oversees safety at a building factory and her mother is retired. “My mom is the one who always supports me, every decision I made.
My dad is worried about me a lot because I’m an only child and a girl. Mydad is a very traditional man.”
Guo attends Jilin Huaqiao Foreign Languages Institute and will be in her fourth year of a 5-year program as an English major “with French direction.”
She said her return to the U.S. is due in part to a desire to practice her English and to become better acquainted with American culture.
Dai’s parents are both doctors; her mother works on an intensive care unit and her father practices traditional Chinese medicine. She said without their support she wouldn’t have had the courage to come to America, alone.
Dai is studying chemistry at Shandong Normal University and will be a junior in the fall. She hopes to improve her English, so that she can work at an international company after graduation. This summer, she wants to travel to places like New York City and “become more independent.”
‘A perfect marriage’
The McDonald’s in Dickinson started working with CCI in 2011 after it obtained a list from the U.S. Department of State of approved cultural exchange sponsors. This list provides a track record of the ones who, in the eyes of the State Department, aren’t performing well, Smith said, adding that CCI has visited twice within the last six months. The personal attention has been “great.”
Even State Department officials have traveled to western North Dakota to meet with Smith and state legislators and see the program in action as the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has beefed up staff and outreach initiatives in an effort to evaluate the success and to consider the future of the J-1 visa program.
Eighty-eight percent of summer work-travel placements are in the western part of the state (including Bismarck), according to the North Dakota
Department of Commerce’s data compiled for June 2013. Bismarck leads with 140 placements or 18 percent, followed by Dickinson with 126 placements and Minot with 117. Williston and Medora are tied at 114 placements each or 14 percent.
Ebert said CCI has 5,000 participants with 2013 start dates. A “great summer” in which a theme of transition — Williston’s evolving boom and young and men on the cusp of adulthood and brilliant careers — makes for “kind of a perfect marriage.”
“We just feel so passionately about the program,” he said. “The feedback is overwhelmingly positive,” especially from the North Dakota participants, he said.
And a large part of the program’s success in Williston and Dickinson is most likely due to business owner Mike Kelley, who owns the McDonald’s in both Williston and Dickinson and to his mover and shakers in the field, Dale
Smith and Vern Brekhus (and their staff), who help the students maneuver work and cultural exchange in a boomtown — ensuring their housing is compliant with program requirements, urging them to practice safety, funding special events like Jamaica’s Independence Day and hosting trips to Fort Buford, Minot and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Smith sees it as a “win-win,” with opportunities for him, the American employees and the students to grow from the experience.
“I can’t tell you how much excitement this generates for our employees. When these students are leaving, they hug, they exchange things and then they’re gone, but they stay in touch,” Smith said. “Our employees know when the changeover is going to happen and of course their questions is: ‘Where is the next group coming from?’ That tells me it’s successful because they’re excited about meeting new faces.”