Students from an array of different countries were challenged to show their balancing abilities during a paddleboarding event last Wednesday.
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church, along with Bethany Surf Shop owner Jim McGrath, decided that, this year, they would hold a free paddleboarding lesson and tour for the foreign students living and working in the area over the summer.
The surf shop held three paddleboarding opportunities for the students at its outlet location in Ocean View, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m., as well as Wednesday evening at 5 p.m. It turned out that morning wasn’t a popular time for the students. According to instructor Madison Lively, no one showed up to the event on Tuesday and only a few came on Wednesday morning.
“It’s really upsetting when they don’t show up,” she said.
But on Wednesday evening, 19 students came to paddleboard. Lively and the other instructor, Katie Morgan, said they believe that weather or forgetfulness led to the absence of students those mornings. But Lively said she was relieved that a good amount of students came and that she, too, would get a chance to get in the water.
Students who attended the event came from countries including Russia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania, China and Thailand. Each one is a college or graduate student back in their home country, seeking to spend some time in the United States.
“I tried a few times, and it was awesome,” Kristina Petrosian, a second-year Bethany Surf Shop employee from Russia, said about paddleboarding.
Petrosian, along with many other foreign students, came to the United States through the Work & Travel Program.
Bill Gay, a member of St. Martha’s who was working with the students, said that Work & Travel helps the students find a sponsor. Sponsors mostly include local businesses, such as the Bethany Surf Shop, that helped the students gain a J1 visa.
Having an activity for the students to get to know each other, beyond the annual picnic or Resort Quest orientation, was the idea behind the paddleboarding event, Gay said. He said he also thought that this would be a great way to introduce the students to a beach-town staple activity. He said most of the student workers probably do not live near a large enough body of water to do this sort of sport.
Gay has been exposed to foreigners since a young age, because of his military background. He said that is why he enjoys interacting and working with the foreign students so much. He also mentioned that a huge priority amongst the students is to learn English.
“They know their future depends on them being able to speak English,” he said.
The event kicked off with Lively showing the students a dry-land demonstration on how to use the boards. She first explained how to find the correct size of board and paddle each person would need and then went into the paddling and standing procedures. A Russian employee of the surf shop translated the instructions for students who did not understand English well.
After the training lesson, the students were led by Lively and McGrath down to the canal entrance in the back of the shop. On the way, each took a board that Lively deemed would support them while paddling.
The students were told to carefully place their boards into the water and start off by balancing on them on their knees. Once they reached a certain level of comfort, they were encouraged to try to stand up. Lively then led them on a tour of the canal for about an hour, having them paddle toward South Bethany.
Students who were reluctant to get on the boards cheered the paddlers from the bank of the canal. They said they were afraid of falling in and that they were overdressed.
Students who decided not to paddle this time would get the opportunity to schedule one more excursion with the surf shop another time, McGrath assured them.
Upon their arrival back at the shop, many of the first-time paddleboarders were on their feet.
“I was afraid to fall in the water at first, but then I thought it was really cool,” said Sasha Nikolaeva, a Russian student working as a lifeguard at one of the Sea Colony pools.
“It’s like meditation,” Tunchanole “Kwan” Khuchumnan said. “I had to inhale and exhale.”
Khuchamnan came to the United States from Thailand and said she works at Resort Quest as a housekeeper. Her sponsor was CEII, which Gay said was one of the most common sponsors in the area.
Many of the students had never experienced paddleboarding before this event. According to Gay, the Bethany Surf Shop was so willing to have this event because of the number of students they have sponsored. He added that McGrath and his family have treated the students exceptionally well and do a great job encouraging them to speak a lot of English.
“I love the people,” Petrosian said about her American co-workers, whom she referred to as a second family. “They are really kind and really helpful.”