By Carol Vaughn — Brinia Vargas Acosta, a university student from the Dominican Republic, is spending her summer as a cashier at Food Lion stores in Cape Charles and Hampton Roads.
The 21-year-old modern languages major is part of the grocery chain’s program that brings international students from more than 20 countries to the United States as part of the J-1 Exchange Visitor program.
The visa allows students to live and work in the U.S. for four months during their summer vacation.
Food Lion has participated in the program for more than 15 years and is the largest grocery chain on the East Coast to host the highest number of students each year, according to spokesperson Alexandra Fusari.
The program fosters global understanding, builds bridges between cultures, and facilitates cultural exchange, Fusari said.
Food Lion stores in resort areas in particular rely on the students to handle the influx of seasonal customers.
Host store locations in addition to the Eastern Shore include Ocean City, Md.; Jacksonville, the Outer Banks, and the Crystal Coast in North Carolina; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Food Lion is hosting around 589 students this summer.
This is the first year the Cape Charles store has hosted students from the program.
Vargas Acosta wanted to take part in the program to improve her English.
“I wanted to be where people speak English as their first language,” she said.
This is her first trip to the United States — in fact, it’s her first time outside the Dominican Republic.
She arrived June 6 and will be here until September.
Vargas Acosta called the experience “amazing,” adding, “I’ve never done that before. I have met many people from many different countries.”
After housing on the Eastern Shore fell through at the last minute, Vargas Acosta is living in Virginia Beach with other students in the program, including students from Thailand, Jamaica, and another from the Dominican Republic.
There are eight students in total here this summer, according to Frank Mandaro, regional recruiting specialist for Food Lion, who is helping with the student program this summer.
“We got a van for the summer and now the store manager has begun helping pick them up and drop them off,” along with Mandaro and another person who transport students across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to and from the Cape Charles store.
“So it’s a lot of logistics, but it’s really wonderful. It’s one where everybody wins. They get an experience — and the work they are doing, they are so wonderful. They’re dedicated; they care. … We absolutely love having them,” said Mandaro.
He said for some of the students, “this is the first time they’ve ever really been away from home, so to be able to sit there and make them comfortable and make this fun — to make such a big experience a little bit smaller … I jumped at the opportunity.”
Cape Charles Food Lion Manager Glenn Mills said about Vargas Acosta’s time at the store, “Brinia has been a blessing. She has a positive attitude. It’s what the Shore needs; it’s what Food Lion needs. If everybody came with that attitude and energy, it would be a phenomenal place to be. So I appreciate Brinia. She has done a great job and I appreciate everything that has come along with it.”
When they’re not working, the students take advantage of their housing’s proximity to the beach and also like to walk in the resort area, Vargas Acosta said.
“There is always something different to see — people playing instruments, people singing, people dancing,” she said.
Vargas Acosta found out about the program from a friend who had participated previously.
She said has been welcomed warmly by the people she has met on the job.
“I appreciate the treatment they give to me. They are so nice with me. … They are very kind,” she said.
Vargas Acosta also said she has learned self-reliance through this experience.
“Being in another country that is not mine, I have learned that I have to do some things for myself. … I have learned how to deal with the problems that I have … sustain myself, buy my things, even going out by myself, too, so that’s good,” she said.
Vargas Acosta said she will recommend the program to other students.
Mandaro said if anyone in the Cape Charles area would like to host students from the program in the future, they should mention it to the store manager.
“The ideal situation would be to have two students to each house, and all within five to ten minutes of the Cape Charles location,” he said, adding, “What better way to learn the Shore than from the locals?”