The Vineyard's Bulgarian connection
Martha's Vineyard's mix of plentiful jobs and beautiful beaches has long proved attractive to American college students on summer vacation. In recent years, the Internet and the evolving political and economic landscape of Eastern Europe have helped to change the face of the Vineyard's student workforce.
Increasingly, the Vineyard's charms, and the promise of good pay attract students from Eastern Europe. The Vineyard's foreign fraternity includes a large number of students from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), an American-style liberal arts school located outside of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia.
While it is difficult to gauge the exact number of students, AUBG students now on the Vineyard contacted by The Times estimated that as many as 100 university students-approximately 10 percent of the entire student body-spent their summer on the Vineyard.
AUBG is considered one of the best schools in the Balkan region and is accredited in the U.S. This spring the business program was ranked as the best in Bulgaria by BusinessWeek Bulgaria and President George W. Bush visited the university this summer.
AUBG students pay approximately $8,200 in annual tuition - inexpensive by U.S. standards, but quiet a hefty sum in a country where the per capita income is $10,700.
Massachusetts is a logical choice for people seeking temporary service or manual work because the state minimum wage ($7.50 per hour) is well above the federal minimum wage ($5.85 per hour) and is one of the highest in the nation.
While the University has no official connection to the Island, AUBG students hear about the Vineyard from friends. Bledi Celiku, 19, a junior at AUBG, is an economics and computer science major. This was his second summer on the Vineyard.
In a recent conversation with The Times, Mr. Celiku said he thought the popularity of the Vineyard as a summer destination had started within the AUBG Bulgarian population three or four years ago and spread by word of mouth.
This summer, approximately 40 AUBG students from Albania summered on the Island, said Mr. Celiku, who is from Tirana, Albania. He worked three jobs this summer - and as many as 90 hours a week - in an attempt to pay his tuition himself, although his parents do help him financially. Although the money is "most important thing" about summering on the Vineyard, he said coming to the U.S. also provided an opportunity to experience American culture.
Mr. Celiku said he enjoys the beaches on his days off. He had travel plans, including seeing New York City for the first time and visiting his uncle in Worcester. After graduating from AUBG, he hopes to return to the U.S. to get a doctorate in economics and, eventually, return to Albania.
The Vineyard also attracts Eastern Europeans who are out of school but anxious to take advantage of summertime job possibilities.
Nancy Gardella, Executive Directory of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said that Eastern European summer residents are part of a history of seasonal visitors. She said they are "providing a good service" to the Island by "filling a gap" in the local economy. The Bulgarian summer residents are "fantastic for employers," Ms. Gardella said.
One of the biggest employers of Bulgarian nationals on the Vineyard is the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA). Darren Morris, general manager of Transit Connection, a company contracted by the VTA to hire bus drivers, said the VTA began hiring Bulgarians in the summer of 2002 after they had trouble finding American employees. Through a recruitment agency, the VTA hired "around 18" Bulgarians that summer, he said in a recent telephone conversation.
The next summer, many of the VTA employees returned and many told their friends, prompting other Bulgarians to come to the Vineyard. The VTA has hired between 14 and 18 Bulgarians - although not necessarily students - every summer since 2002, but has only used a recruitment agency since the initial summer, Mr. Morris said.
Bulgarian students who want to work on the Vineyard must enter the U.S. through a work/travel exchange program. Exchange companies provide all of the paperwork. Applicants choose a destination, indicate how they will make money, and apply.
Zip Travel is one of the largest student exchange companies in Bulgaria. They provide American work/travel programs for "smart and diligent" full-time students between the ages of 18 and 28 who are fluent in English, according to a web site program description.
Many participating students enter the country with nonimmigrant J-1 visas, an Exchange Visitor Visa (which are also issued to others, such as academics). Other Bulgarian workers enter through an H-2B Certification for Temporary Nonagricultural Work, coordinated by the Department of Labor. H-2B visas, which are not restricted to students, require that American employers demonstrate they could not find American employees to fill the positions.
J-1 visas are issued through the Exchange Visitor Program administered by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. A spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs said they had no statistics on J-1 destinations by nationality.
Available J-1 statistics suggest that the US has become a popular destination among Bulgarian students (see sidebar). During the 2006 fiscal year, J-1 visas were issued to Bulgarians at a rate four times higher than they were to citizens of Britain, France, and Germany - countries where much more money can be earned.
Bulgaria is not entirely unique in this regard: Slovakians, another former Soviet Block country, have been issued J-1 visas at similar rates. Slovakia, which joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, has a generally stronger economy with a GDP per capita of $18,200, according to the CIA.
A better comparison is Romania, which borders Bulgaria to the north, and is another new member of the EU. Both former Soviet Bloc states, their economies produce similar figures (Romania's GDP per capita was an estimated $9,100, according to CIA figures). Yet J-1 visas are issued to Romanians at approximately the same rate as Germans.