By Terri Finch Hamilton
Reprinted from Centralight Spring 2015
Enter the magical gates of Walt Disney World, and chances are you'll soon see an employee – or "cast member," as they're called – who hails from another country.
Look closely at their name tag – it might also say Central Michigan University.
Each year, about 200 students from all over the world enroll at CMU to take part in the Disney International College Program. They enroll, obtain student visas, then head to the Magic Kingdom for a combination of course work and a paid internship at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Call them temporary Chippewas. CMU considers them "guest students," but they happily walk around Orlando wearing CMU shirts and toting maroon and gold backpacks.
CMU was one of the first universities Disney partnered with as a way to find ambitious student employees from around the globe, says Dean Wallin, director of CMU's Center for Leisure Services.
"We have a huge presence down there," Wallin says. "There are 200 CMU students walking around every semester."
CMU has been sending its U.S. students to the Disney College Program since it started in 1981. More than 2,200 U.S. CMU students have taken part – more than from any other university in the country.
Eight years ago, Central partnered with Disney to send international students as well.
These students, from England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala, attend universities that have partnership agreements with CMU and Disney. They work at concession stands and gift shops, as custodians, in ticket booths, and parking lots. Lucky ones might slip into costume and greet guests as Goofy or Winnie the Pooh.
Wallin travels to the countries with Disney recruiters to interview candidates. He's there at Disney when the students arrive, helping them complete paperwork and get oriented. Staff from Central's Office of International Affairs assist, too.
The students work 30 to 37.5 hours a week and also study, taking classes offered by Disney as well as classes from visiting CMU professors. They write papers, take tests, attend lectures and do homework, earning 12 CMU credits over a six-month period.
Meanwhile, they learn customer service skills from a company famous for making people happy.
"They learn to solve problems, make decisions," Wallin says, "whether it's to replace a kid's spilled popcorn that his parents just paid for or to give a child a plush animal to make his day."
Everybody recognizes Disney as the best when it comes to customer service, Wallin says. "Those skills can transfer to any job. These students learn to be the magic. They know they can get a job anywhere, because they were trained by the best."
Lizeth Alejandra Constance traveled from El Salvador to participate in the program from August 2012 to January 2013.
She worked as a park greeter and sold merchandise in Disney's Animal Kingdom. She happily tells of the day a little girl approached her and asked her to sign her autograph book, putting her on par with Cinderella and Tigger.
"It felt so nice, knowing even though you're not dressed up as a Disney character, you can truly impact a kid just because of the way you talk to her," she says.
But the true highlight of her Disney experience was meeting a guy named George on a Disney bus, who would become her husband. They now live in the Detroit area, where Constance works at Quicken Loans.
She never set foot in Mount Pleasant, but Constance says she felt like a Chippewa.
"CMU was constantly communicating and inviting us to do things," she says. "They involved us. Even though we were down in Florida, they made us feel like a CMU student."
Maurits Geesink of the Netherlands took part in the program from the fall of 2010 through January 2011, working in guest services at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort.
"Working at the happiest place on earth is something I'll never forget," he says. "It was always great to see families coming to the front desk wearing their own designed T-shirts for their special Disney trip."
One day a family from overseas checked in for a three-week stay during Christmas, but they hadn't made any meal arrangements. Most of the Disney restaurants were booked.
Geesink asked them for their itinerary and food preferences and worked out a dining schedule for them.
"I think those guests will always remember their Christmas of 2010, like I do," says Geesink, who now works in event planning at a resort in the Netherlands.
"It was already my passion to work in the hospitality industry," he says. "The Disney College Program made my passion even stronger."