For the majority of Russians living outside of Moscow and Petersburg, the United States and it’s denizens are shrouded in a decent amount of Hollywood-distorted mystery. All the same, teaching English at a major Russian university one meets many students who have spent time in the United States. Almost every single one of these students visited the U.S. as a participant of the same “exchange” program – Work and Travel USA. Through this program, which is run by a number of different tourist/exchange agencies, students get a J-1 work visa for up to four months during the summer. Many of my friends, acquaintances, and students here in Vladivostok have participated in this program. Most of them spent their summers in the U.S. working at fast food restaurants in eastern cities and rented apartments with other Russian work and travel participants.
It’s cool to have friends who have spent some time in the States and have some idea of what life is like over there. Even cooler is having friends who know what it’s like living in a totally unfamiliar country, to live with a language barrier, to get completely lost in a strange city and have no idea how to get home, to be completely embarrassed because the waitress doesn’t understand you when you ask what you thought was a very simple and correctly phrased question. It’s great to hear their stories of the difficulties of life in the country where I grew up and where things make sense to me. It’s like these experiences are exact mirror images of mine because it’s the same things that they don’t understand, or that are surprising for them in the U.S., that are strange or surprising for me here. Like my friend who was dismayed by the lack of fizzy-water consumption in the U.S. and the difficulties of its procurement, while I still forget that here I have to specify that I want normal water when I’m at the store.
But the difficulties that they face in their time abroad are much worse than those I struggle with. In my living abroad experience I am very lucky to have the support, both financial and otherwise, of a very legitimate, well-run, well-respected organization. I am lucky to have an interesting job, all kinds of great opportunities, and sufficient funds. The typical Work and Travel experience, on the other hand is usually lacking in most of these departments. The role of the agencies which organize the program in the experiences of the participants basically ends once the student receives their passport. Calling it an “exchange program” is actually quite misleading. The participants are really on their own once they arrive in the U.S. They usually arrive with nothing more than their visa and the name of the manager at whichever establishment has provided them with their job offer.
The job offer is one of the documents required in order to get a J-1 visa. They can be acquired through the agency in Russia for a fee, or an individual can try to find one on their own online. However, many participants buy falsified job offers which they use to get their visa and then find jobs on their own once arriving in the U.S. These fake offers are popular because of the unreliability of the real job offers bought through the agencies. Many participants who buy job offers through one of the agencies discover upon arriving in their city that either the employer has already filled the job, or that the job duties are much different than those originally promised.
Exacerbating the difficulties of finding a job and a place to live in an unfamiliar country is the fact that many of the program’s participants have a fairly low level of English, despite the fact that all applicants must pass an interview in English with a State Department Officer at one of the American Consulates. Sure, the first time I traveled to Russia to study my Russian was awful. But I was a participant of an exchange program where everything was structured and monitored. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I had had to find an apartment and job on my own!
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Work and Travel program is that every year thousands of Russians who participate in the program never return to Russia. All of my friends in Vladivostok know people who have gone to the U.S. on W&T and stayed. Many of them stay illegally. Some get married. A small number pass the TOEFL exam, save enough money to pay tuition, and apply for student visas. I’m not sure what the number of those who stay illegally is, but I’ve seen in my web browsing that the total number of W&Ters who don’t return every year is somewhere around 15%.
This means that there is a significant number of Russian students who prefer to live and work in the U.S. illegally rather than return to Russia to finish university.
This year I have been much more aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction among younger Russians toward life and the conditions of living in Russia. There seems to be a very common feeling that not only is the quality of life in Russia much worse than in other European countries and the U.S., but that there’s little hope of changing this. Last year, as I recall, most of my acquaintances addressed the shortcomings of life in Russia in the sort of “well what are you gonna do, this is how we live” kinda way, whereas this year I am noticing more people who aren’t content with that answer. They want the chance to live a “normal” (as they would call it) life. For most of them this means living abroad. Perhaps I’ve simply been socializing with those people who are most disillusioned about life in Russia, or maybe it has something to do specifically with people in Vladivostok…