international students

The group of J-1 Visa students during a trip this summer. (Photo courtesy of Telluride Ski Resort)

Traveling to a foreign land alone can be a nerve-racking experience. Between language and cultural differences, sometimes it’s downright scary. Sheri Gemelli, a Telluride Ski Resort recruiter, knows this. That’s why she organizes events throughout the year for the resort’s international students who are in town working on J-1 Visas, a program that affords them cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through a variety of offerings overseen by the U.S. State Department.

Telski will be hosting an American-style prom Wednesday at The Peaks Resort & Spa’s Crystal Ballroom for such workers, along with those employed at Hotel Madeline and Clark’s Market. Though the event is for students only, she explained that it’s also an opportunity for the community to get to know the workers as they ease into mountain town living.

“This prom is a way to share American culture,” Gemelli said.

This season, approximately 70 students from countries including Peru, the Philippines, Israel, Brazil and Argentina are working for Telski. Gemelli said she works with recruiting companies in an effort to fill seasonal positions with international students each winter and summer, explaining there are less spots to fill in the summer. The students stay for up to four months, depending on their school schedule, and are required to intern for Telski in an area that aligns with their respective major. Telski has employed international students since the early 2000s, Gemelli said, as most of them stay in the resort’s employee housing at Big Billie’s Apartments.

Gemelli also organizes a welcome party — this year’s was cowboy themed — and field trips to regional national parks like Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde and Utah’s Canyonlands. This all creates a unique cultural experience that the students may not have otherwise.  

“The students get to come and experience our American culture at work and in the community,” she said. “It’s how we share Telluride and our community with international students.  … Those are places they might never see outside of a magazine.”

At first, Gemelli spends a lot of time with the students one on one, whether it’s helping them obtain a social security card or showing them the ropes locally, like where to grab a cup of coffee. She explained how they eventually come out of their shell over the course of the season and participate in community events like Latin Night at O’Bannon’s Irish Pub.

“I think they all start out a little nervous, a little apprehensive, but you watch this transformation,” she said. “ … I feel like also they learn to adult. It’s a very adulting sort of experience.”

She shares a story about a Russian student who had a life-changing experience during her time here over the summer.  

“She said she got up and did the same thing every single day in her hometown. Nobody said hi to her. Nobody asked her how she was or what she was interested in. It’s just a different culture,” Gemelli said. “She said here it was so engaging and people cared about her. She said the whole thing transformed who she was.”

On a global scale, Gemelli feels programs like J-1 Visa ultimately promote diplomacy.

“We all have ideas about how the rest of the world works,” she said, pointing to the ongoing Russia-U.S. debacle as an example. “Russian students over the summer were asking questions like, ‘Hey, do you think people are going to like us because we’re Russian?’ There was so much anxiety, I think, in terms of being here. Then they get to work and understand and see the community.”

The experience was much different than the perception, she added.

“I think they feel like Telluride’s their family,” Gemelli said. “They love, love, love the people here.”