International students gather for welcome picnic

Coastal Point photo • Shaun M. Lambert: Students from all over the world enjoy each other’s company during the annual international students picnic at St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Bethany Beach on Tuesday, June 21.

Braving Tuesday night’s thunder-and-lightning extravaganza, international students gathered at St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Bethany Beach for their annual welcome picnic. The students — all of whom are living and working in the Bethany Beach area this summer — enjoyed a buffet of American food and had a chance to get to know each other and members of the local community.

When it began 10 years ago, organizer Martha Fields said, the picnic was intended to combat stories of international students coming to southern Delaware and not being treated well. Fields said that now the picnic and continuing outreach efforts work to create “a positive influence” for the international students and a “positive impression of the United States” for them to take home.

Starting off on the right foot, Fields said, the evening literally opened doors to a housing placement with a church member for one student and, for another, a chance to put her 11 years of musical training to use on the church piano and organ.

Throughout the summer, organizer Bill Gay said, St. Martha’s — in conjunction with local businesses including Resort Quest and the local Chambers of Commerce, churches, police departments, hospitals, fire departments and security agencies — will work to keep the students safe and well cared-for.

Gay also said that, over the next few months, there will be three English language labs where students will have the opportunity to accomplish what many describe as a driving force behind traveling to the United States: improving their English.

It was also a unique opportunity for the picnic volunteers, Gay said, because as students filled their plates with traditional “American” food, including hot dogs, pasta salad and brownies, they had the chance to explain what all of the dishes were.

Kristina Petrosian, a student from Kaliningrad, Russia, said, “My favorite thing is the potatoes with all of the cheese. They’re so good!”

The students themselves represent a wide range of countries, with many coming from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Local businesses rely on the international students during the busy summer months, and picnic attendees are already hard at work across the town and beyond, with positions at stores and restaurants including Baja Grill, Bethany Surf Shop, The Penguin and Bethany Trading Company.

After spending a few weeks in Bethany Beach — or for some returning students, months — many said their first impression of American culture was that everyone they meet has been kind, friendly and willing to help.

They also said that the efforts of St. Martha’s and the local community to secure reliable housing and free bicycles for their use has been incredibly helpful as they settle into summer schedules.

One Bulgarian student, Parashkev, said that the biggest difference he noticed between the United States and his home country is the size and scarcity of grocery stores.

“Here, you have Giant and Food Lion,” he said. “But in my country, there are a lot of small stores, and they are everywhere.”

After spending the summer at the beach, most students plan to use the rest of their time stateside to travel throughout North America. Top destinations included American hotspots such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Niagra Falls.

Aside from traveling and practicing their English skills, most students say that they’re looking forward to living at the beach and making new American friends.

As the area rolls into the thick of the summer season, the community at large has the chance to follow St. Martha’s lead in welcoming the international students who constitute such a large part of the community from May to September.