Only two days left in Juneau’s ski season. Eaglecrest closes on Sunday, after a banner year of snow. The city-owned ski area opened Nov. 25, eight days earlier than planned. It still has about 100 inches of snow at the base and 155 at the top of the mountain.
Some of Eaglecrest winter crew are on summer break. Since 2006, Eaglecrest has hired South American students to fill some jobs seldom sought by locals.
The J-One Visa Program has become so popular, a few have returned for multiple seasons, like Celline Souza of Maringa, Brazil.
“The snow is just something that you have to experience,” she says.
Celline had only seen snow in pictures until she came to Eaglecrest.
It’s summer south of the equator when it’s winter in North America, and she wanted a summer job in the United States. Her criteria:
“Snow, because I had never seen it before, and with no Brazilians and no Spanish-speaking people,” she says.
She landed at Eaglecrest in the winter of 2007 and 2008. She’s been back three times.
She is multi-lingual and wanted to work in the Eaglecrest rental and sundry shop, where she could practice her English and get to know the guests. The shop this winter was a stopping point even for those with nothing to buy.
That’s been the history of the Eaglecrest program, says former ski area manager Kirk Duncan. Over the years, he hired students from Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Chile.
“We have a lot of jobs that are relatively low skill and we really hire for personality,” he says. “And these kids have a ton of personality.”
Duncan is now CBJ Public Works Director, but the J-One Visa Visitor Exchange Program is still a source for Eaglecrest employees.
The program is regulated by the U.S. State Department. To qualify, participants must be college students, proficient in English, carry basic medical insurance, and pay their own fees. They’re usually in the country about three months.
Duncan says it’s very popular at large U.S. ski areas, but the Eaglecrest experience is more like home-town America.
“What makes Juneau unique versus Aspen, or Vail or some of the bigger resorts is that they don’t ever get to see America,” Duncan says. “Juneau is just great for college kids really understanding what Americans are all about.”
Celline would agree. She embraced Juneau during her three winters here. Her host family this season, Marcus and Teresa Zimmerman, call her the “social butterfly.”
Her student visa expires April 14th, so she’s heading back to Brazil.
Keila Delmazo returned to Peru in late March, where she is finishing a bachelor’s degree in tourism. Like Celline, Keila embraced the snow and skiing.
“It was great, because in Peru we don’t have ski areas,” she said before she left Juneau.
Keila worked at Eaglecrest for two seasons, the first as a lift operator.
“It was hard because the weather is very different from my country,” she recalls. “But now it’s very warm, my job.”
That’s because Keila moved indoors this winter and was a cashier in the Eaglecrest Grill, where she could practice her English. Though she’s taught English in Peru, she says it’s just different in America.
“It’s kind of difficult because the language is not the same. Sometimes it’s hard to understand,” she said.
Most years, the foreign students have been lift operators, generally known to Eaglecrest skiers and boarders by their colorful hand-knit hats.
Marcus Zimmerman is Eaglecrest Lift Supervisor. He says lift operator positions are often hard to fill with local employees, and the South American students bring a very good work ethic to the mountain.
“They’re very reliable. They’re here to work. They’re here to experience the culture, so they’re very dedicated,” Zimmerman says.
The J-1 Visa brings students to America year around and some come to Juneau for summer tourism jobs.
The hiring process for the U.S. winter season begins in June. Eaglecrest uses the Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, which operates study and work programs for youth in 33 countries. Zimmerman says CIEE handles the application and visa process.
“They do have background checks done on them,” he says. “The stuff that’s on our end is more providing information on what the jobs entail.”
There are drawbacks – government policies change, students’ summer vacation time may not conform to the Eaglecrest season – and this year only three foreign students worked at the mountain, from a high of ten in years past. Zimmerman says the ski area also has had better luck lately in hiring locally for the lift jobs.
Many of the foreign students like to come to Juneau for the “Alaskan” experience. The jobs are not glamorous, nor are the wages. The students pay their own way from their home country, they find their own housing, and they earn from $9 to $12 an hour. Eaglecrest provides transportation to and from the mountain. If employees work at least two days a week, they are eligible for a lift pass and a few other perks.
Celline says she knew she wouldn’t make a lot of money; it’s the people she met and the friends she made that shaped her experience.
“Everyone that I’ve met here has been so amazing to me. I can honestly say I have a family here in Juneau,” she says.
She recently completed her bachelor’s degree in law, a five-year program in Brazil. She’s already passed the Brazilian bar. While she’s no longer able to work in America on a J-1 Visa, she is sure she will return to Juneau some day.
“I would live here if I could,” she says.