The Poland – Lake Tahoe connection
Chris Bczek is a 20-year-old college student from southern Poland who got on an airplane in Warsaw for the first time in his life on July 3. On his own he flew to London, then to Los Angeles and up to San Francisco, where he got on a bus that took him to Stateline.
“Yes, I was scared,” he said, arms resting on the day pack he always carries. “Everything was huge, different.”
But Bczek had $345 in his pocket, a return air ticket and two prearranged jobs: making pizzas at Round Table and changing sheets at the Cedar Inn.
His supervisor had neighbors who rented him a room. Bczek bought a motor scooter at a local sports shop, and suddenly an American summer was looming before him like an uncut apple pie.
Bczek is part of the influx of college students from Eastern Europe who have signed job contracts to work in tourist meccas like Tahoe through summer work-travel programs such as American Work Adventures, based in San Rafael, Calif.
“They take the jobs that Americans don’t want,” Joan Deguise, program manager for American Work Adventures, said. “They also fill an overlap for employers here because, unlike American universities, they don’t go back to school until October.”
American Work Adventures partners with overseas student organizations that screen the applicants for fluency in English. The students fill out an application and pay a fee to the program that includes a J1 United States visa and a round-trip discounted air ticket . A J1 visa allows a student to stay in the U.S. for four months.
Deguise combs South Shore for prospective employers, both small and large. The Horizon employs about 65 students in all positions, according to Human Resources Director Ann Parra.
“Apparently there are not a lot of jobs in Poland for that age group,” Parra said. “They also want the experience for their resume. They look more like a well-rounded person. They’ve traveled.”
Zephyr Cove Lodge has hired a handful of workers for three summers, according to Dave Sheets, human resources director for Aramark.
“They are not afraid to work, and they do a job well,” Sheets said. “Without them, it would be very difficult. We would either have to do without the position or we would be paying a lot of overtime. “
Sheets said he has seen workers walk the 4-mile stretch from Stateline to Zephyr Cove to get to work.
But experiencing American culture is the main motivator for the students, Lidia Sowinski, owner of the South Shore Inn, said. She and her husband, Zdzislaw have become surrogate parents for the students, who often stay there until they can find shared housing. Lidia takes them along when she goes to Sacramento or Reno to shop. The students can use the computer and leave messages for each other behind the front desk.
“They come mostly for the adventure,” Sowinski said. “The first thing they do is make enough money back home to make the trip. It takes about six months of a Polish salary to get here. Once here, they work hard to earn it back. It’s not a big moneymaker. They do it for the culture, to get better at the language. “
The unemployment rate in Poland hovers around 17 percent. About four Polish zlotys equal one U.S. dollar.
Anna Kurpiewska, 24, from Warsaw, works as a dealer at Bill’s Lake Tahoe Casino. Last summer she worked at a theme park in North Carolina. She saw Reno for the first time last week.
“The lake is cooler, better, beautiful,” she said. “Bill’s is friendly, nice atmosphere.”
Toni Picknor, who manages the Round Table Pizza store in Round Hill, is impressed by the resilience of her employees.
“Me going to another country, I’d be discombobulated,” she said. “But they do it. They’re very hard workers. Sometimes you have to look at them and use your hands to help communicate. But they understand you when they need to.”
Two employees of Picknor’s are from Latvia.
Zonna Kevisa, 22, has a degree as an information technology specialist from Riga Technical University in Latvia.
“I had visited England,” she said. “Visiting the U.S. was my next step. I can travel now while I’m young. No family, no kids.”
Her roommate, Olga Chudare, 20, is a social science major who arrived in Tahoe three weeks ago. It cost her $950 for the documents and $875 for the air ticket; she brought about $600 in spending money.
“I decided just to do it, come by myself,” she said. “Our mountains are not so big. People are happier here.