In August 2011, nearly 400 foreign students on a cultural exchange walked off their job at a Hershey’s chocolate plant in Pennsylvania, claiming that it was not the American experience they had signed up for. Like the tens of thousands of other foreign students who come to the United States every year, these Pennsylvania protestors were in the country as part of a work-study exchange program – a means of allowing university students from overseas to experience American life firsthand.
In exchange for a few thousand dollars, these programs, often affiliated with the State Department, promise students a J-1 Visa, cultural immersion, an opportunity to practice English, and the experience of daily life in America. But, these particular students at the Hershey’s plant claimed that what they got was manual labor, a lack of cultural immersion, and paycheck deductions that hardly made up for the costs of their visas. Rick Anya, the chief executive at the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A. – the program through which these students came – spoke with The New York Times in August saying that the council was trying to respond to the students’ complaints.
For years now, the American dream has been losing its luster, and the plight of these students illustrates that reality. Driven by idealistic dreams of life in America, foreign exchange students are finding themselves greeted instead by high costs, low wages, and dashed hopes. By all accounts, these students were expecting more than assembly line work and were never told their American experience would require so much heavy lifting. Working in a chocolate factory can be easily romanticized, and a few months in the U.S. is not a hard sell to foreign students who have grown up on American pop culture. I’d imagine it’s easy for the work-study programs to gloss over all the not-so-glamorous details.
While working as a university English teacher in northern Thailand, many of my students headed to the U.S. on similar programs – the Thai program of choice is called Overseas Ed Group. The U.S. certainly has shaky standing abroad, but to 20-something co-eds in northern Thailand, the country is still, in many ways, the dream. My students loved Kanye West, idolized Brad Pitt, and thought it was cool that President Barack Obama plays basketball. They fantasized about shopping in New York City and hoped one day to drink coffee at a Starbucks on American soil.
I watched many students get their work-study assignments and begin preparation for their time abroad. They happily daydreamed about their pending posts at Busch Gardens or Dunkin’ Donuts, and packed their English textbooks into their suitcases. They were going to learn English, make friends with real Americans, and work at what they considered to be some of the country’s most iconic companies.
They went and months later they returned, newly humbled by a heavy dose of reality. One of my students was posted at a gas station in rural Texas where he learned more Spanish than English. Two of my students worked at Busch Gardens in Virginia and earned minimum wage for cleaning up popcorn and washing dishes. Their hard-earned money went to pay for an apartment they’d been misquoted on, and they spent most of their time with other Asian exchange students who were in the same boat. As one of my students put it, “life is not easy in America.”
Many wanted to know if what they experienced was the real America; getting underpaid, paying exorbitant housing prices, and listening to Miley Cyrus on the radio. While it was certainly not the America they had been promised, it was impossible for me to look them in the eye and say what they experienced was not a very real version of American life. They entered their programs under false pretenses – a fault of the programs’ promises more than anything else – but what they learned is that the current reality is nothing like the fabled American dream, and that working in a chocolate factory has very little to do with Willy Wonka.
Daily life in America is no longer what our pop culture legacy promises, though this certainly was not the fairest way for them to find out.