PORTSMOUTH — More than music was streaming from the Portsmouth Gas Light Co.’s outdoor patio Tuesday evening. Those who listened closely would have picked up on the lively conversations of more than 100 foreign exchange students speaking in their native languages.
The restaurant hosted what owner Paul Sorli hopes will become Seacoast J1 Hospitality Coalition’s annual welcoming for students of the J1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program who come to the Seacoast to work during their summer breaks.
“We’re trying to create social events so the students in the area can actually meet each other and spend time together while they’re here,” Sorli said.
Sorli joined the Kittery, Maine-initiated coalition after utilizing foreign exchange students as seasonal employees for 15 years and having once been one himself. He said working in Germany when he was 19 was a life-changing experience.
“I promised myself that if I had the resources, I would do it for others someday,” he said.
The coalition, led by Kittery Town Council Chairman Jeff Thomson, was formed late last summer. Its volunteers started a bike rental program for the students to use as a valuable means of transportation while they’re here. The coalition also provides rides from the C&J bus terminal when they arrive in the area.
“We hope they have a very positive experience while they’re here and can feel good about the United States,” Sorli said.
Thomson hoped the evening would allow the young adults to see “a side of America they haven’t seen or heard about through their country’s media.”
“As we all know from watching or listening to the news, the part of the world they come from is very troubled and they’re not the biggest fans of the U.S.,” he said.
Twenty-one-year-old Artem Ziganshin of Chelyabinsk, Russia, said he already likes America more than his home country. New Hampshire, he said, is “much greener” than the industrial community he grew up in. He also thinks the people are very different and more polite.
Living under Russian rule, Vitaliy Furda, 20, of eastern Ukraine, has befriended Ziganshin despite their differences. Citing a lifelong goal to one day see London, he said Portsmouth is “a lot like England.” Furda said he took the opportunity to work as an exchange student so he could see the world.
“This is my chance to visit America, improve my English and see beautiful places in New Hampshire,” he said, adding that although he wasn’t able to make the trip last year, this year he secured a work visa through Sept. 1. After spending his summer working at the Gas Light, he will return to his studies in Ukraine.
“I hope to first see Boston, New York and other places to speak with the people and learn their traditions,” he said. “There are so many differences.”
“We’re changing the world one student at a time,” Sorli remarked.
Although the coalition has worked to ease the transition for the students, Thomson believes there is still more work to be done. Kittery saw a housing shortage last year for the 100 foreign students who arrived for the summer. This year, 75 to 80 are expected.
“I still have some questions regarding housing, who’s responsible for what,” he said. “That still is kind of the bugaboo in the whole system, and it’s compounded by availability and expense.”
Residents willing to rent a room or support a foreign exchange student this summer can fill out a form on the coalition’s Web site at www.ourkittery.com/j1-coalition. Donations of used bicycles are also greatly appreciated. The coalition also has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/J1Seacoast.