Resorts operate like a giant machine; in its operation there are miniature movements that may go unnoticed when running well but their ripple effects turn to tidal waves when they’re not. Think through your last day on the mountain:
The first person you likely came in contact with was a parking attendant who was in and out of your day within a matter of seconds. Maybe you’re visiting from out of state and next met with a rental technician who measured your foot for boots, waxed your snowboard and made a recommendation on their favorite lifts/runs. Standing with your snowboard on the red “load here” line, you might have interacted with a lifty as a chair scooped you by the rear and took you to the heavens like the hand of a deity. With your bird’s eye view, you manage to spot the red jackets of ski patrol doing one of the thousands of tasks they do to lower risks for riders. If these are the gears, what of the grease?
Bubbling up from below, as oil does, come students from the southern hemisphere taking advantage of the J1 Visa program. As snowstorms roll over our Wasatch mountains, summer makes its home in the southern hemisphere and students are faced with countless options on how they’ll spend their break form college. Among the countless options for students is the J1 Visa.Dating back to 1961, the program was set in place through the Fulbright—Hays act. The objective of the program is a cultural exchange. Students, professors and exchange visitors have the ability to fully submerge themselves, becoming “passionate learners of culture” (R Wagner). While staying here in Utah, they add depth to the phrase “walk a mile in my shoes” to include “shred a run on my board” and “spend a paycheck on our Main Street.”
Visa holders do a lot to smooth the operations of Utah ski resorts. The extra set of bilingual hands contributes to the overall success of the daily operations. Beyond that, a massive portion of their paychecks is spent in the local economy. While here, program participants are typically responsible for their own housing and tend to use their hard-earned money to experience Utah by shopping in our local malls and partaking in local thrills.
“They spend a lot of money in our communities,” Rebecca Wagner told me, “a lot, a lot of money.”
Wagner works at Deer Valley Resort in recruiting and has worked closely with the J1 program since 2014. With passion-laced words, she began educating me and dispelling some of the misconceptions that she’s encountered repeatedly over the years.
“They’re responsible for their visa fees and pay for the program to get here,” she explained. “Then we pay them their wage but that first paycheck takes two weeks and they’re still responsible for their housing . Because of this, most come from well-off families.”
Wagner continued and addressed the conception that participants are strictly here to fill a work void saying, “Yes, they come and work but they’re truly here for that cultural piece. One in six of these participants will go on to represent their country internationally in their country’s government.”
The relationship between J1s and resorts is more symbiotic than that of machine and oil. In fact, as my conversation with Wagner came to a close I began realizing I had the metaphor completely wrong.
Last year only seven J1 holders made their way to Utah due to the pandemic. While operations as a whole were a bit different, the workload was managed and job slots were filled. Nonetheless, things felt different, proving what visa holders bring with them goes beyond resort duties.
“These students bring so much enthusiasm!” the contagious energy managing to change Wagner’s tone simply by reminiscing on seasons past, “ have never seen snow or have never left their home country. They’re in a different hemisphere now. In a place where they’re not speaking their mother language. But they’re so excited to be here! It’s an energizing vibration when they’re .”
After Wagner and I said our goodbyes I was left doing reminiscing of my own. I recalled a few seasons back watching from the chairlift as a group of J1 students I had met tumbled their way down the mountain with all the gracelessness of Keystone Cops. Just like the slapstick comedy, they too garnished smiles from onlookers while they wore smiles of their own. At that moment, they managed to renew a sport I’d been a decade familiar with. I was taken back to the days when I was more concerned with whether gravity was in operation than if the snow was falling.
In Utah, we are spoiled. Years of The Greatest Snow on Earth® can lead to sleeping in if the snowfall isn’t more than 6" or regarding “groomer” as foul language. For a moment, if we allow ourselves to walk a mile in the shoes of a J1 visa holder or shred a run in their boots; the sport we love is renewed. J1’s aren’t oil for a machine, they're fresh blood bringing vitality to desensitized arteries.
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