By Gwendolyn Craig
Ujwalla Ananda Tate is dreaming of Mumbai. It is summer there now, hot and humid with sunshine for days on end.
It is home, and she hasn’t seen it in over a year. Instead, she is thousands of miles away in Lake Placid, waiting for her country’s borders to open. The date continues to be pushed, while the world assesses what to do as the coronavirus pandemic plays out.
Her colleague, Aleksandar Andric, is also waiting to get home to Serbia.
“He’s from a different country, and I am from a different country, but we are united,” Tate said. “We are united in the United States right now.”
They are not alone.
Hundreds of international students, who come to work in New York through an internship program, have found themselves stuck in a foreign country, unable to work, unable to get home and relying on the kindness of new acquaintances and strangers for food and housing.
They are part of the J-1 student exchange program, an international partnership that allows students to conduct paid internships in other countries. Thousands come to the United States to gain work experience, sharpen their English and do some traveling, and the Adirondack Park is one of the hot spots. The students fill a much-needed seasonal gap in the workforce, especially for rural areas.
Art Lussi, president of the Lake Placid Vacation Corp., is housing about a dozen of them, including Tate and Andric, while he waits to see not only what the state and federal government will do, but what nearly a dozen other countries will do.
He and hundreds of Adirondack-region business managers who rely on international student workers are also waiting to see what will happen this summer. Students overseas are waiting, too. So much is uncertain while the state figures out its economic reopening plans, and while leaders all across the globe adapt to the pandemic.
“It’s a lot of unknowns this year,” said Gary Thornquist, general manager of the Lake George RV Park. He typically hires eight international students for the summer. “I’ve been in this business over 40 years, and never seen anything near to what this is.”
The J-1 student exchange program is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which is under the U.S. Department of State. It is therefore separate from the Department of Immigration and its policies.
Schools work with private agencies that connect students to businesses, like Lussi’s Crowne Plaza Hotel or Thornquist’s RV park. In 2019, more than 1,300 students worked in Lake Placid, Old Forge, Lake George, Bolton Landing, Diamond Point, Keene Valley and Warrensburg. Lake George and Lake Placid saw the most international student workers, with 555 and 422, respectively, in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of State.
While it’s not clear how many are in the Adirondacks at this moment, a spokesperson with the Department of State said it “is working to ensure that all foreign nationals currently in the United States have access to accurate and timely information to ensure they are able to return to their home countries, if they so choose. “
Under the federal government’s Exchange Visitor Program website, regular updates are posted for schools, sponsors and travelers, including advisories and visa extension information.
India’s borders are currently closed until at least early May, though Tate has watched her home country push that date a couple of times already. She is anxious to get home to her parents. She arrived in the United States in February 2019, and it is the longest and farthest she has been away from home.
Her father has health complications, unrelated to the coronavirus, but as the sole breadwinner for the family, the 26-year-old worries about him.
“My parents are waiting for me, and that’s my priority since I came here,” Tate said. “Whatever I did, it’s all for them. I’m right now fulfilling my dad’s dream.”
The money that Tate is saving from her jobs is intended to help rebuild a home her parents own. The house is old and needs work. It doesn’t have a bathroom. She’s hoping that rebuild can start and her father can see it finished.
For now, she is waiting in the Adirondacks, spending her days inside, getting out for the occasional walk. Her work ended on March 13, but Lussi allowed her and her colleagues to stay in their dormitories until they can get home.
Tate is also getting help from the Indian Consulate and the North American Association of Indian Students, a nonprofit organization. Both the association and Lussi make sure she has food.
“I have never seen such a down-to-earth person ever in my entire international journey of my life,” Tate said of Lussi. “Everyone gives so much love and care. I don’t know, I can’t express it in my words.”
Andric, too, is grateful to Lussi. He has also been in Lake Placid for about year, working with his girlfriend. They were supposed to leave for Germany on March 18 to visit relatives, then head back to Serbia.
On March 19, the Serbian border closed.
The government, however, is sending over planes to pick up Serbian citizens. Andric and his girlfriend are hoping to catch one of them soon. He said there were about 860 Serbian citizens in the United States waiting for a flight, though a few planes have already brought some of those people back home.
“We’re in kind of the best situation,” Andric said about being in Lake Placid. “My personal opinion, I think this is right now one of the safest places, I have to say, for this kind of situation. Not so many affected, and we’re not going out. We’re just going for a walk around the lake and maybe for some small hiking and that’s it.”
Day-to-day the state and federal government make changes and updates to policies around the coronavirus. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced plans for reopening the state regionally, and the North Country would likely lead based on its low hospitalization rate and transmission rate, so far.
But the governor is not keen on opening tourist attractions or allowing events that could create large gatherings of people, even in upstate New York, so businesses in the Adirondacks are left waiting.
If they are allowed to open, the question will be whether or not businesses can get enough staffing, and whether international students will be available.
“The situation regarding COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly,” said a Department of State spokesperson. “The health, safety, and welfare of exchange participants, and of the Americans with whom they interact, remains the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) highest priority.”
The bureau is strongly recommending that sponsors of these exchange programs postpone program start dates 60 days after March 12, the spokesperson added. That nearly coincides with New York’s tentative ending of its shutdown, though again, that could always change.
Most businesses getting assistance from the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in the Adirondacks are waiting for the middle of May to make decisions.
Gina Mintzer, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce, said employers like The Sagamore in Bolton, Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center in Lake George, the Adirondack Pub and Brewery in Lake George and Six Flags Great Escape Resort in Queensbury rely on international student workers.
Six Flags, for example, has 1,500 employees but about 200 of them are international students, said a spokesperson. So far, the resort “has temporarily suspended operations until mid-May, or as soon as possible thereafter.”
“Obviously these are very atypical conditions and once we reopen, we will take guidance form the U.S. Department of State, which oversees the program,” a spokesperson added in an email about working with J-1 visa students. “We will continue to closely monitor this evolving situation, and follow the most current guidance from federal, state, and local officials.”
Thornquist said the agency he works with to hire international students has now pushed their earliest arrival to Lake George to June 15. Thornquist has already pushed his own opening date from May 8 to May 18.
James McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, said there’s a lot of uncertainty, too, about whether people will be willing to travel even if everything opens back up this summer. The office is already doing projections on summer tourism, and is anticipating June will be, at best, 25% of last year’s visitation levels and July and August will be about 60%.
In Lake Placid, Lussi is still waiting to hear about summer workers, too. Typically he employs between 40 and 50 international students.
Tricky economics and policy
If international students can make it over here, local, state and federal officials, especially in the public health sector, are also assessing how to keep them and the public safe.
Ginelle Jones, public health director for Warren County, said there’s currently no way for the health department to know who is in the county, and who is not, and no way to contact all international students.
Jones is working on meeting with the agencies that get students here and businesses “to come up with some sort of uniform credentialing,” including a notification protocol in case of an emergency. She is also looking to implement stricter immunization requirements, especially after a measles outbreak struck a couple of years ago. Many of the international students were not vaccinated against it, Jones said, and she had no way of contacting them all.
And what are the issues if international students cannot come over in the numbers needed to staff them this summer?
Considering the number of furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic, one might think the local workforce could fill the need. But Mintzer worries about whether that’s practical.
“Right now, if you’ve been furloughed or are on unemployment, now you’ve got an extra $600 a week until July 31,” Mintzer said. “You can’t make that same amount of money working front-line positions necessary in our area.”
Adrian Masters, chair of the Economics Department at the University at Albany, said there’s always a trade-off when it comes to policies during times of crisis.
“The way those policies are written, they’re focused mainly on getting money out to people, even if it means interfering with the usual market mechanism that would be channeling workers in,” Masters said. “Whenever there’s a recession, these kinds of things happen.”
Masters suggested college or high school students may be able to take the positions, if businesses are willing to take their chances on inexperienced workers. Typically, international students who work in the hospitality industry are looking to go into the business. Andric, for example, hopes to own his own restaurant someday.
He has friends in the exchange program, waiting to hear about this summer, too.
“They’re kind of still on hold, and they think it’s going to happen, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, to be honest,” Andric said. “It’s just, in this small town, coming every year, 300 students, it’s going to be a huge, bad impact” if someone arrives and is carrying the virus.
For now, the waiting game continues.
Despite being stuck, Tate and Andric reflected fondly on their work experience in Lake Placid. Tate hopes to come back again, after she has checked on her parents in person.
“These are really great people,” Tate said of those helping her and the people she has worked with. “These are the real heroes helping me right now.”