By Christine Heffernan and Erica Roseingrave
As the summer draws to a close, the thousands of Irish students who spent their vacation in America are beginning the weary trek home for the new college year. Lured by the prospect of big bucks and bright lights, as many as 10,000 Irish students took advantage of the J1 cultural exchange program this year, which entitles students to live and work in the U.S. for four months, while thousands more took their chances without a visa.
The J1 experience has become akin to a right of passage for many Irish students. In increasing numbers, students pay up to $800 to participate in the J1 program. It is an experience that begins for many with the now fabled queue in early January outside the USITNOW offices on Dublin’s Aston Quay, where many would-be participants queue for as long as 24 hours to secure a visa and early flight.
Students are able to live and travel anywhere in the U.S., although SAYIT, a Cork-based J1 agent, says that for the last two years the three most popular destinations have been Cape Cod, the Jersey Shore and San Francisco. The company advises students to avoid big cities as jobs and accommodation are harder to come by. They also warn of the dangers of "culture shock" for those making the transition from rural Ireland to a metropolis such as New York.
For many students, however, it is the attraction of the big cities that makes a summer in the U.S. so exciting.
"New York is definitely the place for anybody interested in media," said Ben Cogan, a 21-year-old from Bayside in Dublin. "My priorities were to make good money and experience what life in New York would be like. I knew there would be so much to do, and so many bars and clubs, I wanted to experience as much as I could."
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Unlike most students who travel at the end of their stay, Cogan, a third-year philosophy student, went on holiday when he first arrived, visiting his sister in Chicago.
"Most Irish have relatives here, so it makes traveling more affordable and convenient," Cogan said.
Adrian Finlay, a fourth-year politics student from Cushendall, Co. Antrim, also had his sights set on New York.
"This is probably the only time in my life where I would be able to pick a city and go and live there for a few months without having to worry about the long term," he said. "I have always fancied living here, so I knew it would be an opportunity to see if I liked it.
"I was lucky because I got a good job with a publishing company, but at first it was a bit hairy trying to find accommodation. SAYIT advise you to bring $700 with you, but for New York that really isn’t enough. I lived in the YMCA on 42nd Street for two weeks and that left me nearly broke. Also, there are so many people looking for apartments, the deposits and money required up front is pretty unaffordable."
However, not all who come to New York manage to land on their feet. Perhaps this year’s worst J1 story involves 10 Irish students in Woodside who, unable to secure accommodation, bought a tent and pitched it in a park. Needless to say, they were sent home early.
Over the last few years, the West Coast destinations of San Francisco and San Diego have increased dramatically in popularity despite less favorable jobs prospects. San Francisco, especially, has the reputation for being the No. 1 destination for J1-ers looking for a debauched experience. English student Ger Gilroy, 23, from Athy, was able to secure accommodation with six other people in a two-bedroom apartment, and a job as a carpenter within a week of arriving. He then threw himself into three months of solid partying.
"San Francisco is amazing," he said. "We took it easy on Monday and Tuesday nights so we would do one or two days’ decent work and hang on to our jobs, then be out the rest of the week."
Siobhan Bastible, who is from Sandycove in Dublin, also traveled to San Francisco. Unlike most students, who head to the U.S. in big groups, Bastible traveled solo but stayed with her sister, who lives in San Francisco permanently.
"The city is very pretty and way more relaxed than New York, which is too fast-moving and stressful for me," she said.
An unusual destination for J1 students is New Orleans. But Claire Thornhill, who studies economics at Trinity College, spent three months in the Big Easy.
"New Orleans is amazing. I definitely want to go back," she said. Thornhill lived with nine other J1 students in the French quarter.
"It has a reputation for being dangerous, but I didn’t think the area we were in was too bad," she said. "However, jobs were pretty hard to come by. I worked in a diner, starting at 7 a.m. The money wasn’t great, but I didn’t care much as the experience was so good."
Before returning home, Thornhill traveled to Memphis and New York.
Due to the short nature of the program, most students find work in the service sector. USIT claim the four most common areas of employment are waiter or waitress, chambermaids, dishwasher or receptionist, although, increasingly, many students are trying to secure valuable work experience that will be of benefit them when they finish college. Unfortunately, the most lucrative or career advancing jobs tend to be in bigger cities, where the cost of living is higher. Nevertheless, with exchange rates as they are, most students will be going home with money to show for the endeavors — or, at the very least, a tan.