‘It was a dream to come over here’

By on May 31, 2023

International students walk past the ISOP sign, which directs the newly arrived to the YMCA gym’s back entrance on May 30. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)
Members of the Outer Banks Woman’s Club (seated) check to make sure J-1 students brought all their required paperwork, then direct them toward informational booths. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)
International students wait in line outside the YMCA gym for the social security event to start on May 30. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)
Members of the Outer Banks Woman’s Club (seated) ensure J-1 students have everything they need before they take their turns with Social Security Administration personnel in the Outer Banks Health van. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)
International students wait their turn to see Social Security Administration personnel. They will get social security numbers and pay taxes during the time they work seasonal summer jobs on the Outer Banks. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)
previous arrow
next arrow

International J-1 students gather for an Outer Banks summer

About 70 international students were already in line outside the Outer Banks Family YMCA on Tuesday, May 30 by 9 a.m.—and there were more to come.

These J-1 students were there for the first of four Social Security events this year with onsite Social Security Administration personnel—one from Elizabeth City and one from Greenville. Given that the closest office is in Elizabeth City, these events are designed to save the university students, who are living on the Outer Banks for the summer with J-1 Visas, an expensive cab ride—or their employers a costly day of closing their businesses to drive them.

The students get Social Security cards because “they have to pay taxes while they’re here,” explained Jamie Banjak, Chair of the all-volunteer Outer Banks International Student Outreach Program (ISOP).

Students who come to the United States on a J-1 Visa participate in a cultural exchange program as they work seasonal jobs. The program is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State.

Traditionally, these students make up a significant part of the Outer Banks’ visitor season workforce. In 2019, almost 2,000 students came to the Outer Banks for the summer on J-1 Visas.

“I don’t know what to expect this year,” Banjak acknowledged. “I don’t think we have housing for 2,000 people, and…you can’t come without housing, so that’s the big ‘if’ this year. We’ll find out.”

Several students explained why they came here for the summer. “This is a good opportunity to meet new people, exchange culture, [and for] the financial aspect,” Aldane Reid, a 28-year-old from Jamaica, said. “Financially it’s really rough there to pay tuition.”

Reid is studying to become an animal technician and is working at Mulligan’s Grille in Nags Head this summer. While he didn’t personally know anyone else coming to the Outer Banks, he was aware that other Jamaicans come here on J-1 Visas. After just a few minutes in line, he’d already met another young man, with whom he was speaking Jamaican Patois.

Further ahead of them in line, five young men talked excitedly in Thai. Watchavapong Paitoonwong, a 20-year-old agriculture student, said he came to the Outer Banks from Thailand for “new perspective.” He and his four friends are all working at Village Pizza in Nags Head this summer.

Three young Spanish-speaking women, meanwhile, said they each were inspired to travel here after seeing the “Outer Banks” Netflix show. “It was a dream to come over here,” 22-year-old Crisitina Aulez stated, adding that she wanted to “feel the vibes” in person.

Victoria Betancourt, 22, said she wants to “live the best summer on the beach.” She and Aulez attend the same university in Ecuador. Betancourt is studying law and communication, and Aulez is studying law and psychology.

They just met Danelia Diaz, a student of medicine from the Dominican Republic, as they are all living together and working as housekeepers at the Travelodge in Kill Devil Hills. Diaz, 23, came with hopes to “meet new people, know the culture [and have a] different experience.”

Students registered at an intake table in the YMCA gym manned by members of the Outer Banks Woman’s Club. Other club members helped students fill out required government forms for their Social Security number applications, then students made their way around to informational booths.

This year’s event is larger than last year’s but still much smaller than before COVID, when various businesses donated “all sorts of coupons” and even did bicycle giveaways to welcome and introduce students to the community. As Banjak said; “It was really like Christmas.”

At Tuesday’s event, First Flight Rotary Club members helped set up, and Outer Banks Health, Outreach Ministries OBX, PNC Bank, T-Mobile and Outer Banks Hotline each had informational tables.

Outer Banks Health provided information on the differences between urgent care and the hospital emergency room, along with sunscreen and hand sanitizer samples. PNC Bank offered information about a type of bank account it has specifically for students, while T-Mobile had prepaid phone plan information at one table, and another complete with Duck Donuts and bottled water the students could take. Outreach Ministries OBX shared information about a weekly service it offers, and Hotline offered brochures about sexual assault and human trafficking.

ISOP provided reflective drawstring backpacks and ordered enough bicycle lights so that, along with a donation of bike lights from the OBX Bicycle & Pedestrian Safety Coalition, each student received both a front and rear bike light in a backpack.

“It’s really quite amazing the way employers and community volunteers have come together to do this,” Banjak. “None of this happens without generous donations from our community and employers who are involved in the program.”

Julia Taft, an owner of several different businesses in Avon, said she’ll employ between 25 and 28 international students this summer from countries including Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Turkey, Jamaica and Mongolia.

“I need them,” she said. “This is the first year since 2019 The Froggy Dog will be open seven days a week again, because I finally have students…so it’s very exciting.”

“The problem we run into is visa denials…so we wanted to make sure we got [students] from multiple countries so that if they didn’t get their visas, we had more coming,” she explained.  “Like last year in Turkey, the embassy never opened, so all of my students from Turkey never showed up.”

Banjak said she saw Taft, as well as the owners or managers of Moneysworth, Lucky 12 Tavern, R/C Kill Devil Hills Movies 10 and Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant, all bring their student employees within the first hour of the event. She expects the next three events in June to be even more well attended, since most international students have June travel dates.

The students who are already here are grateful. Mamura Yakhshiboeva, a 19-year-old from Uzbekistan, said only 10 out of 100 people who apply for J-1 Visas in her country get them, and she cried with happiness the day she received hers.

“America is a really far country for us,” the economics and finance student said. “I want to travel and see the world.”


  • Glenn

    A warm OBX welcome to all the students! Enjoy your stay & thanks for your help!

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 7:42 am
  • Dianne Denny

    This event is a win win for everyone which would not happen without the participation of so many volunteers and businesses. Where would we be without our J1 students? Thank you ISOP!

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 8:58 am
  • Smokey

    Missed them for the past few years. So glad they are back. Welcome and enjoy.

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 10:26 am
  • Travis

    I hope they have a good experience here.

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 10:39 am
  • Steven

    Seems their expectations will not be met around here, likely to be very disappointed.
    Especially the gal that watched a TV series thinking that it’s here or reflects here. She should know it has nothing to do with us..

    Julia Taft has plenty of access to local employees, she just doesn’t want to pay a decent wage. Shame

    ..bring back the Czech and Russian girls..

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 10:52 am
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Not sure what you’re getting at in the last sentence, Steven. But please don’t elaborate.

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 8:43 pm
  • Currituck Buckeye

    These summers can springboard exceptional life opportunities for many of these kids. I’ve seen permanent residences, wonderful marriages and promising careers come from a simple “summer” job. Welcome!!!!

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 11:24 am
  • Jay

    Welcome to America! Now the first thing you must do is go over there and get your social security card and start paying taxes! I honestly do enjoy meeting people who are excited to be here.

    Thursday, Jun 1 @ 6:59 am
  • Steven

    Problem is, they have zero transportation, just a bicycle light set.

    Thursday, Jun 1 @ 12:57 pm