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Growing visa program brings international workers to the Dells

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WISCONSIN DELLS (WKOW) — As school starts and we say goodbye to summer, Wisconsin Dells is saying goodbye to thousands of temporary workers.

More than 450 international college students wrapped up the last day of the season at Noah’s Ark this Labor Day.

“I learned a lot of things about the American culture,” said Gayenur Karamustafa, a staff member from Turkey. “How working policy works in America, because it’s a lot different than my country. And I learned a lot of good things, a lot of people here, it changed my view, actually. And also, of course, my English has improved.”

The students like Karamustafa come from 15 different countries, approved to be here through the U.S. Department of State’s J-1 Visa program.

“The Wisconsin Dells area employs the second-highest number of J-1 [students] in the nation,” said Noah’s Ark general manager Mark Whitfield. “In terms of our J-1 students, it’s double what it was 10 years ago.”

Noah’s Ark started hiring international students 15 years ago, when there weren’t enough local workers to cover the Dells. That program to find summer workers has doubled in the state in the past decade.

According to data from the Department of State obtained by 27 News, 10,023 J-1 visas were issued in Wisconsin last year. 6,046 were for summer workers. Others are doctors, camp counselors, professors and researchers.

In 2009, the department issued 6,760 J-1 visas in Wisconsin. 3,183 of those were summer workers.

“Wisconsin Dells is growing, there’s new hotels being built, new attractions, new restaurants. So the demand for employment is high,” Whitfield told 27 News.

The waterpark is now joining other large employers in the area, building a new dorm for the international workers. It will house about 400 students who need a place to stay for the season, right on site.

Right now, the students stay in area motels, but the company is anticipating possible changes to housing requirements in the future.

“We’ve been hearing from the State Department that having J-1 international students in motels will be slowly phased out.” Whitfield said. “That was one of the reasons that we considered building a new, updated housing complex on our property, because those just aren’t acceptable anymore in terms of being able to live and do laundry and cook your meals and have friends over.”

The new dorm at Noah’s Ark should be finished in May, in time for the next season. It will be the 10th facility like it in the Dells, according to Whitfield.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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