"Don’t be afraid of failing to get where you need to be" - Helena KingHelena King

Hear the first-hand experience of young Irish people living and working in the US in IrishCentral’s latest series on the J-1 graduate visa. We speak to recent Irish graduates working across a range of industries on their careers, motivations, and the highs and lows of their stateside adventure.


Our J-1 Graduate Visa Series continues with a look at the retail industry with Helena King.

Helena is 23 and from Co. Dublin. She completed a BA in Business and Irish in DCU before coming to New York.

She currently works as a visual merchandiser in Brooklyn.

Why I decided to come to America.

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to live abroad and experience other cultures and ways of life. So, when the opportunity to spend a year in the US came along, it felt like something I'd regret forever if I didn't take advantage.

I had spent a summer in San Diego on a summer J-1 visa when I finished my final year of University and instantly felt like America was a place where I needed to spend more time.

After I’d spent a summer on the west coast I knew that if I was to come to the US for a whole year, I definitely wanted to settle in a place that suited me and my personality best. That’s why I chose to move to New York.

The constant hustle and bustle of city life was really appealing to me, and, although there were freezing cold winter days of -10 Celsius, and days where living by the beach sounded really appealing, nothing beats the feeling of standing on your Brooklyn rooftop, looking over at the Manhattan skyline, and remembering that you live in New York City.

Leaving a career in Ireland

Choosing what city to live in for me was the easy part, but actually making the decision to move here in the first place was slightly more difficult.

I was almost a year out of college when I decided to go, so time was running out. I was also working as an account manager for a successful menswear brand and gaining amazing experience in the retail industry, which is the industry I’d decided I wanted be involved in.

Initially, it was a hard decision to leave my job, where I was working hard to make a name for myself, but then I remembered that it was now or never and that this opportunity probably wouldn't ever present itself again.

Let's face it, I was never going to regret that year I moved to New York.

Changing careers

Finding a job wasn't as difficult as I thought it might have been, but you do have to be ready for a lot of rejection.

I knew I wanted to pursue the career I had started back home in the fashion industry, but I also knew I wanted to change fields. I came to New York with the aim of getting into visuals or buying, but this proved quite difficult.

When you have no experience in the field and employers find out you'll only be here for 12 months, it can be tough. They may not want to invest their time in you when they know you won't be sticking around for too long.

Luckily, after a month of being here, a company took a chance on me based on my previous experience and good attitude, and so I started my career in visual merchandising.

Coming to New York is a great opportunity to try your hand at a new field, to find out what you want to pursue, but also to find out what you don't want to do as well.

US Employee rights

Although I don't regret coming to America for a second, the one thing that working here has taught me is how lucky we are that Ireland is a member of the EU.

In Ireland, I never felt taken advantage of as an employee and always felt I'd earned a fair wage, and had my rights protected etc. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for America, particularly New York.

When I started my new position, I was shocked to hear my colleagues speak of paid sick days, and how great it was that they were just being implemented. I've shocked colleagues myself when I tell them about all the laws that are in place in Ireland to protect workers—things that we don't think twice about at home—such as holiday pay.

I have no paid holidays in the year, so we're basically discouraged from ever taking time off.

Another problem is that we don't get paid any overtime for working overnights. With my role, we do a lot of overnight shifts so we can revamp the whole store without bothering customers. Sometimes we do this in double shifts, so we start at 1pm in the afternoon and finish at 4am in the morning, but we get no extra pay for working through the night, this is just treated like a normal working day.

As much as I love working in New York, and wouldn't trade it in for the world, it's disappointing to see one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world not treating their workforce with the same respect as Europeans.

Taking the downs with the ups

I've been in New York for 9 months now and the end is closing in quicker than I would like it to.

The past 9 months have been a whirlwind of emotions. There've been days of sheer bliss and happiness and then there've been days of loneliness and the feeling of just wanting to go home, sit down with your friends with a chipper on your lap and "X Factor" on the TV.

I would have never called myself a home bird. I've wanted to move abroad since I was a kid, and when people hear that you've moved to New York, they think you must be living the high life seven days a week.

There are days when you definitely are, but nobody ever tells you about the days when you just want to go home and visit your friends and family and be in familiar surroundings.

Cultural experience of a lifetime

Having said that, I wouldn't trade my experience in for the world.

Moving to New York has taught me so much about myself, but the thing I love most about living here is being surrounded by so many cultures and backgrounds every day.

Whenever people ask each other about their nationality, the answer is very rarely “American,” even if they were born and raised here. The answer is always something like Cuban, Mexican, Korean, Taiwanese, or even Irish.

Being surrounded by such a diverse population has really opened my eyes to other cultures and ways of life. My favorite thing about it, however, it is that the people really cling on to their roots and cherish them and make sure they are not forgotten.

If you meet any Hispanic kid they all speak Spanish, even though they may have never visited the country in which their family originated.

It's such an admirable trait to see these communities preserve their heritage, and it's something I wish I saw more of at home.

Advice for future graduates

If you're considering doing a year in America, I would say stop thinking and just do it. You have nothing to lose.

Before I left, my Mam said to me, “Sure, what's the worst that can happen? You have to come home? So what! At least you'll have tried”.

This is the very attitude you need to have. It takes a lot of guts to up and leave, to remove yourself from your comfortable surroundings, and your friends and family, and start a whole new life somewhere, but I can guarantee you that you won’t come back the same person you were when you left, and you won't regret it for a second.

Have you taken the plunge and moved to the US on the J-1 Graduate visa? Tackled the visa process, the job and apartment hunt and lived to tell the tale? IrishCentral wants to hear from you! Share your J1 Graduate visa story with editors@irishcentral.com to take part in our series and advise the next batch of US recruits.