Irina is from a small, quiet town along the Danube River in Romania. She left her small town just a few years ago to study Aerospace Engineering in Bucharest, Romania's capitol city. During her first year of university, Irina met a friend who had decided to participate in the Summer Work Travel Program. Irina didn't quite understand why her friend would choose to travel alone to the U.S. and work. "At the time, I thought why would people want to go work in America? Why not spend the summer working in Romania or a closer country in Europe?", explained Irina. While Irina stayed home that summer, her friend traveled solo to the U.S. She stayed in contact with her friend, hearing the excitement in her voice and longingly scrolling past her travel photos on social media. "I had such a sense of regret for not going that first summer and I told myself I wouldn't regret this again", said Irina. The rest is history. Inspired by her friend's adventure, she decided to go to the U.S. for Summer 2019.
Ultimately, Irina accepted a position as a Host at Blue Moose Burgers in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Although she was unable to participate in 2020, she has registered for the 2021 Program and hopes to return to Pigeon Forge. When asked why this program should remain a priority for 2021, she shared:
"It is very difficult to get a U.S. internship in Aerospace Engineering or to study at a U.S. university. The Work Travel Program makes America and new ideas accessible. It's an opportunity to develop soft skills, broaden our perspectives, learn from one another and travel while we are young. I hope governments continue to see the value it has for the future. I hope visas will happen for 2021."
Check out more details from our interview below.
Can you describe some of your first experiences in Pigeon Forge?
"I remember Wal-Mart. (she laughs) It was so big. I wanted to go there because I saw in on TV and in pictures. To see the different goods and just how big that store is was amazing. I also remember the friendly way people spoke. It was so different than in Romania. In America, people smile and they are genuinely friendly to strangers. That was so different for me. I found myself adapting to be more expressive. To not be shy or afraid to share emotions. Before going to America, I was quiet and a little shy. Working as a Host required me to speak regularly and approach people. This experience helped me gain confidence, not just in my English, but also in how I interact with people."
Are there any culture shock experiences you had?
"I met some weird people, sure. I think I realized the U.S. is just big and there are so many different kinds of people. I remember noticing that people were more relaxed. For example, In Romania, I would never leave my house in house clothes. In the U.S., people were more relaxed and casual. I liked that."
Why are you interested to return in 2021?
"I want to continue learning. I want to see more of the U.S. During my first summer, I explored Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and a little of the west coast. This year, I want to see New York during my travel period*. I also want to visit my coworkers and managers. They become family when you are there. I want to see some of my favorite places and make new memories."
*(The J-1 visa allows up to 30-days for travel at the end of program.)
How much does the pandemic impact your decision to travel to the U.S. in 2021?
"There is definitely a lot of unknown and that made me hesitant to sign up for the program initially. But, I don't want to have regrets and I think I should try. I would regret not trying. I understand there are added challenges because of COVID, but I'm willing to face and overcome the challenges. If I stay in my home country, there are COVID safety measures in place (like social distance, masks, disinfectant) and the same things are in place in the U.S. I can follow those requirements here or there.
How was your work experience in the U.S.?
"My managers were so so great to us. They were friendly and they cared. There's this idea that managers are mean or they yell - that work is not something people look forward to. I didn't experience a single day where I didn't want to go to work. I looked forward to it. It was really an environment where we all worked together. I was working with Americans and with other (BridgeUSA students) from all over the world."
As you know, there is a visa ban in place through March 31st. Why should governments prioritize this program for 2021?
"The Work Travel Program makes America and new ideas accessible. It's an opportunity to develop soft skills, broaden our perspectives, learn from one another and travel while we are young. I hope governments continue to see the value it has for the future. I hope visas will happen for 2021"
What advice would you give to students considering the Work Travel Program?
"I would advise the students to try this experience at least once in their lifetime. Even if maybe you will experience some inconveniences or problems, it happens, this is life. Some way or another, you will overcome them and you will enjoy the experience as a whole. Trust me. Best summer of my life, so far!