International Student Center offers emotional, cultural support

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 5:30pm

This summer, more than 200 student workers from more than 20 different countries came to Block Island to work, to play, to meet new people, and to learn more about their host country. As diverse as these students are, they have a commonality of purpose, which is often shared at meals and activities at the International Student Center at the Harbor Church.

“The community needs to be reminded that these are students, undergraduate or graduate students,” said Bill Penn, who is chair of the International Student Center Advisory Board. The Board was founded several years ago as a support mechanism for the student workers who may have been experiencing issues with employers or housing. Penn said that the students coming to Block Island are vetted by the various agencies sponsoring the students. They have to have maintained a certain grade point average at their schools in order to become eligible for the J-1 Visa, which allows them to be in the United States or four months — three of which are taken up by work and one for travel. The travel aspect is a mandatory part of the Visa. The programs guarantee that the students are paid at least a minimum wage, and that their employers schedule them for at least 32 hours each week. The students are also required to frequently check in with their sponsors.

Penn also said that the students have medical insurance, “so they are not on the dole at the Medical Center.”

But according to Pastor Peter Preiser of the Harbor Church, the student workers add much more to the island than simply supporting its economy.

“Our island community is enriched by the presence of these students,” he said. “We value them, we honor them.”

According to Alton Bentley, the program’s coordinator, students on the island this season represent the following countries: Jamaica, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia; Herzogovina, Thailand, Macedonia, Turkey, China, South Africa, Philippines, Dominican Republic, Romania, Taiwan, Lithuania, Slovakia, Jordan, Puerto Rico, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Bolivia.

“Alton is a friendly shoulder and a representative of the church to make sure things go right,” said Penn.

Throughout the summer, the ISC has hosted almost 20 Tuesday night dinners, which were particularly helpful at the start of the season. “At the beginning of the summer, they don’t have any money or food,” said ISC Board member Susan Matheke. 

“Everyone looks forward to Tuesdays,” said Bentley, who said that more than 800 individual meals have been served with the help of about a half dozen volunteers. These dinners, and the other recreation activities provided by the student center at the church, serve as a kind of cultural exchange and emotional and spiritual support, said Preiser.

“A number of these people have never left their homes,” said Bentley. “This is all new to them.”

Preiser said the island business community and island residents have been exceptionally supportive of the program. The ISC has received about $12,000 in donations in the past year, with generous support from the locally-based Roosa Fund. Island businesses that have contributed to the Tuesday night dinners include Ballard’s, the Block Island Residents Association, the National Hotel, Will and Penny Young, the Carol Doiron family, Mohegan/Harborside, Aldo’s Restaurant, Pastor Peter Preiser and Carrie Johnson, and chefs Cindy Kelly and Alton Bentley.