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A touch of hospitality

Eastern European college students get a chance to see America while helping to alleviate a labor shortage at beach hotels and restaurants.

In their home countries, these fresh-faced students are studying to be engineers, accountants and stockbrokers.

But here, for several months this summer, these Eastern European students are slicing lettuce, making beds and cleaning pools at several beach hotels and restaurants. They're learning about America by working in lower skilled jobs. At the same time, they're helping allay a nagging labor shortage caused by the area's low unemployment rates.

"The labor problem on the beaches has reached drastic measures," said Sue Piatt, general manager of the Alden Beach Resort, where a dozen foreign students are working as housekeepers and grounds workers. "If we don't have people in those positions, we really don't operate. This is the way we're dealing with the shortage."

More than 130 college students from Russia, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia are working this summer at the Alden, Don CeSar Beach Resort, Trade Winds, Hurricane Seafood Restaurant, Scilla Motel and the Hilton on Clearwater Beach. They're here through a cultural exchange program, essentially working to pay off their travel costs to Florida. They're given a food allowance, a place to stay at local hotels and apartments within walking distance of their jobs.

Plus, they get a first-hand look at America.

"I'd like to see how people live here in the West," said Zuzanna Wlostowska, a 23-year-old from Poland who is studying social policy. "It's different in Europe. In the U.S., everything is so huge. Everybody has to own a car. In Europe, it's much simpler."

The full-time college students came to the United States during their school break. Most arrived in June and will return home by October.

Once their nine-week mandatory work period ends, the students can continue working and earn minimum wage or they may travel.

"It's interesting to visit another country," said Maria Lapteva, a 21-year-old Russian who is working as a housekeeper at the Don CeSar. "It's like a new experience."

The students, who received temporary visas, were brought to the United States through a local program organized by Steve Cornelius, a St. Pete Beach business and training consultant. The program is affiliated with the American Institute for Foreign Study in Greenwich, Conn., which sponsors cultural exchange programs for 40,000 students worldwide each year.

The beach businesses contract with Cornelius, who in turn pays for the students' travel, accommodations and food, which costs about $300,000.

Since the students arrived, two have been fired. One student went to Tampa to buy a false work permit in an effort to remain in the United States. Another student was habitually late to work.

All of the students can speak English.

"They can practice their language skills and interact with people from another culture," Cornelius said.

"They say they can't find jobs in their countries, but they come to America and see, "Help Wanted,' "Help Wanted,' "Help Wanted,'

" said Cornelius' wife, Larissa. "They say, "My goodness. Why?'

"

When the Eastern European students leave, more students from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will come to work during the winter months.

Many of the students have one more year of college left and decided to participate in the program for a chance to visit the United States. They don't seem to mind that the hospitality industry jobs they are working are overlooked or unwanted by many local residents.

"It's not so hard," said Ionica Corciova, a Romanian who works as a steward at the Trade Winds. "I only work eight hours a day. Here, I like. I have time to go. I have a bicycle."

Corciova hopes to have time to visit Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and Disney World before returning to college and his computer programming studies.

"I want to travel," he said. "I want to see America. It's very nice here. I like it a lot. It's better here than my country. Here, it's more warm."

But it's a little too warm for Sebastian Ciechomski, a 24-year-old who works at the Alden. The freckle-faced young man, who is studying marketing and management in Poland, has grown fond of fishing in Boca Ciega Bay.

When he's not working, he's fishing.

"It's very hot," he said, one afternoon during a break from fishing. "Too hot for me."

Wlostowska said there are many benefits to being immersed in American culture, something she's only read about.

"We are here because we'd like to practice our language," she said.

Several students said they don't like the fast, tasteless food or the lack of discos on the beach. But they have noticed Americans are very friendly.

"People are very nice, very kind, polite," Lapteva said. "They're always saying, "Hi,' and smiling."

"Our people don't smile without a reason," added Julia Iarmarklna, a 20-year-old Russian.

While the program that brought the immigrants to the beaches is new, foreign residents have been known to work in local hotels _ sometimes illegally. The Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested 47 Eastern Europeans who were illegal aliens last fall and discovered a complicated system to fraudulently employ workers.

The hoteliers who received fake IDs on the workers said they knew nothing about the illegal operation.

The businesses complained after the arrests about the difficulties of finding reliable workers and applicants for the jobs that pay between $6 and $8 an hour. They said the area's good economy and a lack of transportation on the beaches has prevented many local residents from applying for jobs ranging from maids to cooks.

Rick Falkenstein, manager of the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant in St. Pete Beach, said eight foreign students have filled gaps in the kitchen, but he still has a shortage of bartenders and waiters.

He has appreciated the good work ethic of the workers.

"They do everything from prep to taking care of the dish area," he said. "They're very good workers, which is really nice."

As many as 1,000 jobs are open in hotels and restaurants, the Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce estimates.

Kathy Webb, director of human resources at the Don CeSar, said the students help offset the labor shortage, but the hotels prefer to find full-time, permanent workers from the local labor pool.

Most of the students working at the Don CeSar have some interest in working in the hospitality industry. They have been matched to jobs in which they are most interested.

"The students are very excited about being in the states," she said. "They're going to get see part of the U.S. and they're helping us."

Piatt said the only problem has been a language gap. The students know English, but sometimes they don't understand what the guests are saying or requesting.

And those who have long first names have shortened them to make them easier to pronounce, Piatt said.

"Most of them take on some variation of their first name," she said. "Most of the time, we can't pronounce the first name."

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