In the Spotlight

News & Features
From Moscow to the Northwoods
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
August 1, 2002

Yulia Lyagina is hoping to get a job in Moscow, but she's in Minnesota for the summer. She works the front desk at a resort on Lake Superior. Hundreds of thousands of foreign college students come to the United States each summer to work at hotels and restaurants and summer camps. It's hard to know exactly how many are in Minnesota -- but it's a lot. Valley Fair amusement park, alone, employs 200. The students make more money than they could at home. And business owners say they'd have trouble filling the jobs without international students.

Yulia Lyagina is spending her third summer working the front desk at Bluefin Bay in Tofte. She recently graduated from college in Russia.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin )

Four college kids in matching green shirts ride their bicycles across the parking lot at the Bluefin Bay resort on Lake Superior's North Shore. They join up with a dozen other people in green shirts at a building that says "Housekeeping" above the door. They're here to punch the clock and pick up buckets and vacuum cleaners.

Peter Mueller, the housekeeping manager at the resort, comes to the door, squinting in the morning sunshine.

"I'd like everyone to come in here for a minute," he calls out.

A young woman stands next to him. She's wearing a green shirt like everyone else, and she keeps her eyes on her feet, like she might be shy.

"I'd like everyone to meet Evalina," Mueller tells his crew. "She's from a town near Warsaw, Poland."

If you drive the North Shore this summer, you might hear lots of foreign accents at resorts and restaurants. Some businesses depend on international students to fill jobs. Business owners like the European students because European school schedules allow the students to work through October, when the tourist season ends.

At Bluefin Bay, there's a summer staff of 150 people, and 18 of them are students from eastern Europe. The resort has workers from Russia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Bluefin Bay has 18 student workers from eastern Europe this summer. (From left) Laura Vaitkeviciute, Remigijus Abazorius, Julius Strasinskas and Greta Paulauskaite are from Lithuania, and they work as housekeepers.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

Greta Paulauskaite is from Lithuania. She stands on a balcony taking a smoke break with three of her co-workers. They're from Lithuania, too.

"I'm not lonely," she says. "There are lots of Lithuanians here."

Paulauskaite says she works more than 40 hours a week. She cleans rooms, does laundry, and washes dishes.

But she gets time to have fun, too. She says the international students hang out together. They watch videos. The nearest theater is 90 miles away.

"We have parties every night," Remigijus Abazorius says in a stage whisper. "It's a secret. Don't tell anyone."

The resort tells students in plain language that they'll be living in a tiny town in the north woods, according to Bob Keuler, the director of Human Relations at Bluefin Bay. He says he doesn't want students to be surprised when they get here.

"We had one student ask where the disco was," Keuler remembers with a laugh and a grimace.

He encourages prospective summer employees to send e-mail to international students who have lived in Tofte. It doesn't appear that the students are deterred by the idea of spending a summer in a remote town. Keuler says nearly 2000 international students applied for the 18 jobs at Bluefin Bay this year.

"Minnesota is my favorite because the nature is similar to Russian nature. And people are nice up north. You know, they're kind of laid back, and more nice than people, like, in big cities."

- Russian student Yulia Lyagina

Bluefin Bay arranges a weekly get-together with international students from other resorts. And the student workers can use the resort's canoes and kayaks. Greta Paulauskaite says the students get outdoors when they're not working.

"I'm going to hiking, I'm going to biking," she says with a grin and a thick accent. "Everything I do."

Greta's roommate, Laura Vaitkeviciute, says she likes being outside, but she doesn't want to get close to the lake. Kayaking? She doesn't want to try it.

"No, no," she says, empahtic but smiling. "I'm afraid of it. It's very cold in this lake. Someone said that if you will be for three or four minutes in it, you will die."

She laughs at her own exaggeration, but she doesn't seem to be kidding about her wish to stay away from the water.

Vaitkeviciute is studying to be an engineer at her university back in Lithuania. She's in Minnesota to make money. She'll take home about $6000 after she pays her rent and airfare. She got her job through an agency she found on the Internet. That's how most international students arrange their summer jobs in the U.S.

Some of the students spend a month traveling before they go home. A few don't go home.

"This place is awesome," says Alex Golubev.

Golubev is an ethnic Russian from Latvia, and this is his third summer in Tofte. He has a business degree from a college in Latvia, and a few months ago he got one from the University of Wisconsin in Superior. This summer he's working as an assistant manager at Bluefin Bay.

He doesn't want to go back to Latvia.

"We have big discrimination against the Russian people in Latvia," he says. "They don't like Russians. So basically for me it was two choices: stay in Latvia and learn Latvian, and be a slave for the rest of my life; or come up here and learn English, and do whatever I want to be."

Golubev is trying to buy a plot of land outside Tofte. But the student workers' visas don't allow them to stay in the United States, so Golubev will have to have to jump through a lot of hoops for the Immigration and Naturalization Service if he wants to stay here in Tofte.

Nearly all of the international students head home after their four or five month stay.

Yulia Lyagina says she loves Minnesota, but she has plans back at home in Russia. She first came to Minnesota as a high school exchange student in Stillwater, and now she's spending her third summer working at Bluefin Bay.

"I've been to several other states," she says, leaning on the front desk in the resort office. "Minnesota is my favorite because the nature is similar to Russian nature. And people are nice up north. You know, they're kind of laid back, and more nice than people, like, in big cities."

Lyagina will travel a bit when she's done working this fall. She says she's only seen "the middle" of the U.S., and she wants to see "the edges." Then she's going to Moscow to find work with her new psychology degree.

Next year she's getting married. Her spouse-to-be is a Lithuanian guy she met working here in Tofte two summers ago.