OLD ORCHARD BEACH — When Betul Gulec arrived in the United States for the first time in 2016, she thought it looked a lot like the streets and neighborhoods in a video game she used to play.

“When I came here, I was always screaming ‘It’s like the Sims!’ It was funny,” said the 24-year-old recent college graduate from Istanbul, Turkey.

Gulec has just finished her second season working at Waves Oceanfront Resort in Old Orchard Beach, where she was a housekeeping supervisor. She traveled to Maine on a J-1 cultural exchange visa that allows international college students to work temporarily in the United States.

Maine businesses hire thousands of foreign students every year for seasonal jobs at amusement parks, hotels and summer camps. While the students typically work in entry-level jobs that employers are unable to fill with local workers, the program’s larger goal is to foster cultural exchange and global understanding.


J-1 visa occupations in Maine, 2017

Maine employers hire thousands of international students to work here each summer. The young people get J-1 visas, which also are used by foreign exchange students. Here is a breakdown of the Maine visits with J-1 visas this year.


Leading destinations for J-1 student workers in Maine

Here are the top Maine destinations for student workers with J-1 visas, and the number employed there at the peak of summer this year.

Town
Student workers
Old Orchard Beach
436
Ogunquit
136
Bar Harbor
153
Saco
129
Kennebunk
68
Southwest Harbor
60
Portland
48

Reports that the Trump administration may dramatically reduce or eliminate five categories of the J-1 visa, including in the summer work-travel category in which Gulec participates, have worried businesses in Maine and around the country. Roughly 100,000 students come to the U.S. on work-travel visas and another 20,000 come as summer camp counselors every year.

In Old Orchard Beach, Gulec was one of 422 foreign students who worked on J-1 travel-work visas during the summer that just ended, and she was one of 35 who worked at the hotel. Joshua Ouellette, rooms division manager at Waves Oceanfront Resort, said the hotel began hiring foreign students with J-1 visas about 17 years ago.

“It’s just as much a cultural exchange for us as it is for them,” he said. “It’s been a great experience for us.”

Waves Oceanfront Resort pays all of its employees, including J-1 visa holders, at least the state-mandated $9-an-hour minimum wage. They are also paid overtime when extra hours are available. The employer has to demonstrate that it could not fill the jobs with local workers. The J-1 visa holders employed at the Waves resort either pay rent to live in onsite housing or rent rooms elsewhere in town.

Unlike many migrant workers who come to Maine each summer to send money home, Gulec said she and many of the other foreign students in Maine spend the majority of the money they earn here while traveling in the U.S.

For Gulec, the opportunity to experience U.S. culture and travel outside of Europe was the main draw of the program. She recently graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering, following in the footsteps of her father, who is a retired engineer. When she returns to Turkey, she will decide whether to enter the workforce or go back to school to earn her master’s degree.

Gulec had never heard of Maine before she decided to come to Old Orchard Beach last year to work at the Waves resort.

“Here is really cute and you don’t see huge building,” she said. “Maine is really different from where I live.”

Betul Gulec of Istanbul, Turkey, turns the key to a room at the Waves Oceanfront Resort in Old Orchard Beach, where she worked as a housekeeping inspector and shift manager. For the past two summers, Gulec has worked at the hotel on a J-1 visa. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Like Old Orchard Beach, Istanbul is a popular tourist destination. But that may be where the similarities end.

There are 14.8 million people in Istanbul, more than 11 times the population of Maine. Old Orchard Beach – known for its sandy beaches and iconic pier – swells with tourists in the summer, but is home to just under 9,000 people year-round.

Gulec spent her first summer working as a housekeeper at the hotel, impressing her supervisors with her quick smile, positive attitude and dedication to doing her job well.

“She goes above and beyond and it’s not something she’s even doing as a career,” Ouellette said. When it came time to hire J-1 visa holders for this summer, Ouellette said they offered Gulec a job “in a heartbeat” and promoted her to a housekeeping supervisor.

Gulec said she was happy to return for a second year, especially because she had become friends with people from Maine and with other foreign workers. She’s been able to learn about American culture, but has also befriended people from across Europe and Jamaica who worked in Old Orchard Beach this summer.

Gulec has taken advantage of her time in the United States to explore Portland, Saco, Biddeford and Scarborough. She’s traveled to Boston, New York City and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“I was so surprised by every little thing,” she said of experiencing American culture.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises, she said, was how often she’d see people wearing pajamas in stores. In Turkey, most women get dressed up in makeup and heels to go out in public, she said.

“People would ask me if I was going someplace special when I was dressed up to go to the bank,” she said.

After four months in Maine, Gulec was headed back to Istanbul when she finished work on Oct. 1. But she still had one Maine experience to check off her list: eating lobster.

“I’m afraid of tasting it,” she said. “But I definitely will.”


WHAT IS A J-1 VISA?

The J-1 program allows foreign citizens to come to the United States as temporary visitors to experience U.S. society and culture and engage with Americans.

Who qualifies?

J-1 visa categories include: professors and research scholars; short-term scholars; trainees; interns; college and university students; teachers; specialists; secondary school students; physicians; camp counselors; au pairs; and summer work-travel program.

Who are the J-1 holders in Maine?

The vast majority are post-secondary students and young people who come to work in Maine’s tourist and summer camp industries each summer. They fill summer jobs in hotels, inns and amusement parks and work as summer camp counselors.

How is J-1 different from other visas given to students, such as the F-1 and M-1?

Students with F-1 (academic) and M-1 (vocational) visas are focused on studies and have more limited ability to work off campus. The J-1 visa is a broader category that mostly is used for work- and study-based cultural exchange programs.

How many people use this visa?

About 300,000 visitors from 200 countries and territories come to the U.S. with J-1 visas each year. According to the State Department, there are 4,820 J-1 visa holders in Maine, and the vast majority of them – 4,280 people – are either summer workers or camp counselors. Only 202 of them attend secondary school, and 104 of them are at a college.

Can any employer hire J-1 workers?

There are specific limits on the jobs that J-1 visa holders can fill, such as no night shifts, no commission-based work and no jobs in the gambling industry. Sponsors also must declare that no local workers have been displaced or laid off.

How long can a J-1 visa holder stay in the United States?

The length of time depends on the category of J-1 visa. Summer work-travel visas are good for four months.

How much do the summer workers get paid?

It varies, but they must be paid the same minimum wage that applies to any other employee.



TURKEY

Turkey straddles Europe and Asia and reflects a mélange of varied ancient influences.

A 2016 military coup attempt has given rise to increasing authoritarianism by the Turkish government, including purges of the military, law enforcement, teachers, local government representatives and the media. The president declared a state of emergency, which has led to decrees that conflict with safeguards for basic human rights, Human Rights Watch reports. The crackdowns have also stalled Turkey’s decade-long bid to join the European Union.

Kurdish separatists who see the Turkish government as a threat to their culture have been waging a guerrilla war since the 1980s. Kurds make up about a fifth of the population, the BBC reports. The Turkish government has opposed the independence vote by the Kurds in Iraq.

Life in Turkey is affected by the war in Syria, with about 2.7 million Syrian refugees seeking safety in Turkey. Plus, the Islamic State has targeted Turkey.

Cultural reference: When Americans fire up their grills, they often cook kebabs, a common Turkish dish, although it is not unique to Turkey. Students of history will also recognize that a major battle of World War I, the Battle of Gallipoli, became a defining moment for the formation of the Turkish nation – and the backdrop of the 1981 film “Gallipoli.”