WILDWOOD – There are no s’mores in Belarus.
Ilong Kozhen traveled from the Eastern European country to spend the summer in America as part of an international exchange program to learn about other cultures.
S’mores, the strange combination of crumbly graham crackers, milk chocolate, and pillowy white marshmallows burned over an open flame, were one part of American culture she had not yet experienced, until Wildwood’s first J-Day at Splash Zone Waterpark Aug. 8.
J-Day is an annual nationwide celebration for international students who work and study in America on J-1 visas. The second event hosted by Wildwood’s International Student Outreach Program (ISOP), J-Day brought 125 students together to experience some of summertime American culture: barbequing, s’mores and waterslides.
The evening was a break from work for the students, who filed in donning uniforms from Morey’s Piers, Splash Zone, and other Wildwood businesses, before throwing on their free J-Day t-shirts.
“We don’t want them to just work all summer, we want them to have fun,” said Jennifer Campbell, employment service manager for Cultural Homestay International (CHI). “They came to our beaches to help us out, now we all came together to give them a night of fun.”
ISOP was formed this spring by student sponsors like CHI, the Council on International Student Exchange, United Work and Travel, Interexchange and Intrax.
Sponsors are responsible for linking college students who apply for J-1 visas with places to work, live and travel, as well as making sure they’re safe and content.
Cape May County is home to about 3,000 international students this summer.
John and Vicki Lynch, of the Wildwoods Convention Center and Splash Zone, respectively, dished out freshly-grilled hot dogs and burgers to the hungry students.
Anthony DeRita, the admissions supervisor of Morey’s Piers, taught students how to concoct s’mores.
As an incentive to encourage students to give back to the community, students who brought cans of food to donate to the Lazarus House Food Pantry got free passes to inner tube down waterslides.
As students splashed into the pool at the bottom of the slide, some screamed, some covered their faces, and some smiled.
Ganny, a student from China, said it was “so much fun.”
“I never experienced this in China,” she said. She and her friends Rachel and Akela, also of China, rode several more times.
The event was one of 52 J-Days across 20 states. J-Day was originally pioneered in summer 2014.
The goal of J-Day, like the J-1 visa program, is to promote peace and diplomacy between cultures. The exchange program dated to 1946 when Sen. J. William Fulbright founded the Fulbright Program after World War II.
International students pay their way to live and work in Cape May County and other places. If they go home with new friends, a broader world view and improved English, the program will be successful.
Still, Campbell said, many locals don’t know why the students are here. Some think they’re taking jobs from area youth and hoarding their earnings until they return home, she said.
Money is not what they’re taking home because a minimum wage job or two is stipend enough to pay rent and feed themselves, she said.
“Maybe they take home 500 bucks and a pair of Nikes,” Campbell said. “They’re spending all the money that they’re making in the community.”
Roger Chewning, Splash Zone’s operations manager who offered the waterpark for the celebration, said without international students, there wouldn’t be enough willing locals to fill jobs at the waterpark.
“There’s more seasonal jobs here that American kids wouldn’t take,” he said. “It would be very difficult to find enough staff to manage all the time slots.”
Half of Splash Zone’s lifeguards are international students according to Chewning. Nearly 40 students from countries including Taiwan, Spain, Poland, and Romania are employed at the park.
Because international students’ school seasons begin as late as October and end as early as May, they can fill in the shoulder weeks at the beginning and end of the summer when local youths are often in or returning to school.
“The misconception is it’s all about jobs, but it’s really about great diplomacy,” Chewning said.
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