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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (AP) — In China, Wandi Yang is studying digital publishing.
Xue Zhou is studying animation. Xiaoling Jiang is studying psychology.
In North Platte, they're cleaning hotel rooms.
While changing sheets and scrubbing bathtubs, walking to Taco John's, shopping at Walmart or taking trips to Omaha or Denver — even attending a rodeo — these grassroots ambassadors are experiencing slices of American culture and improving their English-language skills, the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/1L3BG9b ) reported.
Regrettably, housekeeping skills get more polish than does English, Yang said.
"We don't have time to communicate" with hotel guests, she said. "We need to clean the bedrooms, change the bed."
The three young women are among 66 foreign university students winding down temporary summer jobs in Nebraska under a decades-old federal cultural exchange program. They and nine other Chinese students have been experiencing life in the United States through work at the Holiday Inn Express and the Best Western Plus in North Platte. Earlier this year, four Filipinos were on the Holiday Inn Express staff.
Their boss says it's a struggle to get along without the foreign students when they return to their universities.
"They're here to work, and you know they're going to be here every day. We rely on them," said Jeff Boeka, hotel operations director for Wilkinson Companies in North Platte. "They never call in sick. There are no no-shows. We schedule them for five days a week, but they'd work seven if we'd let them."
Boeka said the students strengthen the housekeeping staff's ability to handle the surge of summer travelers.
"We couldn't make it through otherwise," he said.
Boeka has hired foreign students to supplement the staff at the 152-room Holiday Inn Express for about 10 years. They fill jobs otherwise unfilled, he said. North Platte's unemployment level rivals Nebraska's 2.7 percent rate.
"It's very hard to find workers," he said. "We've had ads in the newspaper for two or three weeks and had one or two applications. We just went to a jobs fair and got only a few prospects."
Boeka said some of his local housekeeping staff initially feared that hiring foreign students would cut into their work hours when he announced the program a decade ago. He said it hasn't happened.
The students generally work 35 to 40 hours a week and are paid $9 an hour, Boeka said.
North Platte is roughly midway between Omaha and Denver on Interstate 80 in west-central Nebraska. Summer vacation travel keeps occupancy high, and it barely falls the rest of the year, Boeka said.
The students are in the United States under the Summer Work Travel Program, the State Department's largest cultural exchange initiative. They travel to America with visitor documentation — known as a J-1 visa — good for four months.
Students must be sufficiently proficient in English to successfully interact in host businesses. They must be enrolled in a post-secondary school outside the United States and have completed at least one semester.
There are limitations. The students are prohibited from working as a nanny or in any domestic job. They cannot use their own money to purchase inventory to sell door-to-door. They may not work in the adult entertainment industry, in chemical pest control or with traveling fairs.
Alliance Abroad Group in Austin, Texas, placed the 12 Chinese students in North Platte this summer and 10 others — from China, Romania and Taiwan — scattered from North Platte to Valentine and Omaha. Forty-four other students were placed in Nebraska by other companies, according to State Department figures.
The Summer Work Travel Program is an opportunity for states and communities to promote tourism by hosting foreign students long enough for them to become familiar with the community, said James Bell, president of Alliance Abroad Group.
"They get to see what the real America is all about. Everyone thinks they want to go to New York City, Los Angeles or Miami," he said. "When these students go home, maybe they'll tell people to think about visiting Nebraska."
Boeka expected this group of Chinese students to arrive in mid-June, but only two arrived as scheduled. The others straggled in during the summer after a worldwide glitch in the State Department's visa and passport record-keeping database dramatically slowed processing at consulates everywhere.
Besides Jiang, Yang and Zhou, the Chinese students (and their academic majors) at the Holiday Inn Express were Fang Xue, hotel management; Xiaoping Dong, business English; Lirou Wu, Korean language; Qiaoshu Zhang, broadcasting; and Xinyu Yang, teaching Chinese as a second language.
Boeka hosted four Filipinos during spring and early summer. Each is a hospitality major in college, planning careers as hotel or restaurant managers. Pauline Costales and Ephraim Dingle said the brief experience in America is valuable.
"When we go look for an internship or a job, they will see we've been working in the U.S.," Dingle said.
All four students — the others were Crizia Begonia and Vincent Novelozo — plan to parlay their North Platte experience into hotel internships in the United States in future years.
"This helps us improve our abilities and skills," Costales said.
In addition to this year's Chinese and Filipinos, Boeka has hosted students from Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Peru, Poland, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine.
Boeka said he always worries that students from metropolitan cities with millions of people will be disappointed in landing a job in rural Nebraska. North Platte's population is about 24,000.
"This is a little town," Zhou said. "But people, they are very friendly."
During a recent group interview, the students' enduring image of North Platte was of themselves walking along U.S. Highway 83 to buy groceries at Walmart and of the generosity of strangers.
"We don't have a car here. It is very inconvenient," Yang said. "There's no people walking in the street. Only us. Travelers are staring at us. But people are very kind. When we finish the walk, they will drive us home."
Until this year, Boeka housed the students in rooms at a Howard Johnson Inn his company owned. Wilkinson Companies bought a nearby house and renovated it for student-worker housing. It gives the students a full kitchen, three refrigerators, two family rooms, plenty of bedrooms, a patio and a yard.
"These girls like to do their own cooking, and they buy a lot of fresh produce," Boeka said.
Many hotel employees host the students for meals and other activities, including taking them on trips during their days off. They roam from shopping in Denver to visiting the zoo in Omaha. Some outings include Carhenge at Alliance, Lake McConaughy at Ogallala, Pioneer Village in Minden and the Archway in Kearney.
Last year, Boeka took 14 Chinese and four Thai students whose time in North Platte coincided with the annual Nebraskaland Days Rodeo to the event. They climbed into the saddle on a horse. They met the rodeo queen.
"They're fine until the calf roping and steer wrestling starts, then some of the girls cheer for the cows," Boeka said.
Students generally reserve one to four weeks at the end of the program to travel across the country. Two departed during the weekend. The others will follow in coming weeks.
Boeka and other North Platte hosts keep in touch with former students through social media. They read postings about weddings. They see pictures of newborn children.
"They become part of the family," Boeka said.
Boeka has pitched the program to Nebraska Hotel & Motel Association members and to the Nebraska Tourism Commission in recent years.
Zhou said the opportunity to speak English with Americans attracted her to the exchange program.
"And I will see the world," she said.
Charlotte Korn, executive housekeeper at the Holiday Inn Express, said the students all improve their English during their stints in North Platte.
"They don't think they do, but they do," she said.
Xinyu Yang said she would remember North Platte's summer heat. Zhang, who developed an allergic reaction to mosquito bites, would remember the bugs. Everyone said they would remember their boss, "Jeff."
Wandi Yang was poetic.
"I like the blue sky and clouds. The clean sky."
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
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