For more than 20 years, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has supplemented its local summer workforce with students from around the world. This year, more than 300 are finishing their jobs pulling ride switches and scooping up pingpong balls before returning to Armenia, Malaysia, Spain and beyond. What’s the experience like ... and what do they think of Santa Cruz?
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These international students experience the U.S. “warts and all.”
The Beach Boardwalk is a familiar institution in Santa Cruz. We’ve all seen the towering roller coasters and the Crayola-colored machinery, heard the deafeningly loud music and hearty screams of ridegoers. It’s an experience just to stroll the almost half-mile from one end to the other. If you do, you can’t miss the bright-blue-uniformed personnel manning everything from rides to games, restaurants to retail.
But who are they?
Many of them hail from such cities as Sofia, Bulgaria; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bogota, Colombia; and Taipei, Taiwan, having landed here as participants in work and travel programs.
The Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which runs the Boardwalk, employs roughly 2,000 workers. And this summer season, more than 300 of those 2,000 are students from more than 34 countries, part of a little-known program that’s brought thousands to Santa Cruz over the years.
These students are among the roughly 100,000 young people, aged 18 to 30, from all around the world who are employed by amusement parks, state parks, ski resorts, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and more across the United States each year.
Vasil Vasilev, a 20-year-old journalism student from Dobrich, a small town in Bulgaria, is one of those Boardwalk workers, and his path to Santa Cruz was a straightforward one. He applied through the Ambassadors Fund for Student Work Travel, an extension of the U.S. Department of State and one of the “work and travel organizations” that allow students to hook up with agencies that sponsor students abroad. The sponsor — in Vasilev’s case, InterExchange — then coordinates with the State Department to place workers with employers throughout the United States.
Of those many international visitors, only 75 were chosen this year by the State Department to be “student ambassadors” says Vasilev — those accepted into by the Ambassadors Fund. The brand-new program aims to build “mutual understanding and [support] public diplomacy efforts” between the U.S. and global young people. It’s open only to students from select countries in Eastern Europe and West Asia — six countries this year, with four to be added next summer.
These ambassadors receive grants to help cover flights, transportation and other fees.
A student at Sofia University, Vasilev attended training with his 75 student-ambassador peers in New York at the beginning of summer, before students migrated to their summer destinations. They focused on media literacy and misinformation training, intended for students who demonstrate strong storytelling and community-building skills.
Twenty-six of those 75 ambassadors work at the Boardwalk alongside Vasilev, who said he had finally “manifested” his goal of coming to the United States: “I wanted to go so bad to the U.S.A. since I was 14 or 15 years old ... to feel this American dream.” But due to the competitive application process and expense of normal work/travel exchange programs, this was his first opportunity. Having to apply for several years before being chosen is a not-uncommon experience, though successful applicants can make repeat visits.
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Vasilev works the register at the Dipper Diner, the restaurant tucked underneath The Giant Dipper, and said he likes the atmosphere.
“There’s a lot of diversity. It’s really cool,” he said. “It’s like this international exchange. I don’t think in any other place you can meet that many people from all around the world.”
It’s loud in the diner, not just from the music, but from the creaking of the landmark wooden roller coaster. A permanent line snakes toward the register. Does the noise bother him? No, he replies — it’s that energy that keeps him going. The customers can be challenging, he said, but he prefers to be on the register instead of in the kitchen: “I want to communicate. I want to talk with people, not with french fries.”
His immediate goals: “To meet more Americans, more local people.” Longer-term, his dream is to host the Eurovision Song Contest, an international music competition with acts from more than 50 different countries worldwide and lasting for weeks on end. It is as much a lyrical phenomenon as it is a visual specimen, with artists providing live entertainment through stunning dance numbers.
Vasilev has another three weeks to go before he returns home to school. Most of the students end their summer adventure within the month of September.
Walking through the Boardwalk, the music is a constant stream of surround sound that’s hard to ignore. Along the way you’re apt to find 20-year-old Gayane Hayrapetyan, another student ambassador, operating one of the Boardwalk’s numerous game stations. It’s one of those games that looks easy, inviting you to lob a pingpong ball into a large cluster of water-filled vases, but which can be frustratingly difficult to win.
Of the multiple eager faces that sail up to Hayrapetyan’s booth, only a few walk away grinning and clutching a neon plushie toy. She’s a third-year law student studying at Armenian State University in Yerevan and found the “entry-level job” a new kind of challenge. Yet the people are mostly friendly, she says, with only a few rude ones.
Nacho Perez Sanchez, also 20, is a ride operator from Barcelona, Spain, where he is studying to be an athletics teacher.
When the park opens, he and fellow ride operators troop out with rags and bottles to all that familiar machinery. After spraying things down, they head to their official posts for the day to start ferrying people through the rides. Being a ride operator, he says, can be very physical, but “it’s the best work.” When he’s not moving around, he’s talking to guests and looking out at the water. Lately, he’s been stationed at the Undertow, the exceptionally loopy, Banana Slug yellow roller coaster on the Boardwalk’s upper deck.
How the program works
The wide-ranging, complex program sees the State Department working with 46 worldwide organizations with employers from Anchorage, Alaska, to Sandusky, Ohio. New York, Colorado and Wisconsin tend to see the most student visitors year to year, trailed by California. While California was the fifth-most-visited state in 2021, Santa Cruz was the Golden State’s top destination for exchange visitors.
Because students have a designated job upon arrival, they essentially get “funded” access to the U.S. Another thing? Work and travel sponsors handle the rigamarole of passports and visas, while future employers manage housing. In the case of the Boardwalk, housing is located across the street from the park and at the University Town Center on Pacific Avenue.
But it’s not called a work and travel program for nothing.
These students work in the U.S. for the summer in exchange for the ability to travel during their time off and to finance their traveling with their summer income. Additionally, the work and travel visa, called a J-1 visa, allows for upward of 30 days of travel time at the end of their stay, as long as workers are no longer employed and travel dates don’t conflict with school schedules.
Through their combined work and travel experience, student visitors can connect with other workers from around the world, meet local people and familiarize themselves with American culture, “warts and all,” according to Casey Slamin, senior vice president of programs at InterExchange.
“It’s a win/win,” Nicole Elkon, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for private-sector exchange, said of BridgeUSA, the summer work travel program run by the agency.
While Elkon recognizes that Americans can learn a lot from these visitors, she emphasizes that the learning experience on the side of the exchange visitors is incomparable. Among other things, she mentioned students learning about capitalism and entrepreneurship, how to keep track of their shifts, and how to “literally punch in and punch out.”
The State Department has been running a work and travel program for more than 30 years; the Boardwalk isn’t too far behind, having hosted students for more than 20.
“It’s a cultural exchange,” said Kris Reyes, the Boardwalk’s director of strategic development and external affairs. Local students have the opportunity to make friends from all over the world, and perhaps travel to visit those friends in the future.
Reyes says such programs are common practice for companies in the amusement and tourism industries: “[They’re] incredibly valuable to the Boardwalk because the [Boardwalk’s] season extends past when local students are in school.” In addition, since UC Santa Cruz sees many of its students return home during the summer, that source of local hires needs to be supplemented.
This summer’s crew of Boardwalk workers say they don’t meet a lot of Americans, mainly hanging out together, and say that Santa Cruz is a fun place to experience. Some have been able to travel throughout the summer, mostly close by to San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Carmel.
In Santa Cruz, something that catches their notice is the people on the streets.
“There are too many homeless people. The cultural shock from what I’ve seen ... completely shocking,” says Hayrapetyan. Vasilev adds that he thinks it’s dangerous to walk at night: “Why does the municipality not do something?”
Lucia Cascajo, a biomedical engineering student from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain, also said she was “shocked” by the homelessness around the city. On the positive side, she says it’s hard to beat working at the beach, and her restaurant job means she never gets bored.
And then, of course, there are numerous tangibles and intangibles to working at the Boardwalk, a community in and of itself. The workers get a free shuttle to and from the Boardwalk, free snacks, free rides and even some events just for Boardwalk employees, like ice cream socials and movies.
The Boardwalk Best party is an exclusive end-of-season party, for Golden Ticket winners, those exceptional workers given golden tickets by secret shoppers throughout the summer for “world-class service.” Those who receive three golden tickets are invited to be the Boardwalk Best.
And that’s one of the final perks of the program.
Sums up Hayrapetyan: “You meet everyone from everywhere.”
FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to clarify the relationship between students and summer programs and the U.S. State Department, and other details of the programs and their history.