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Irish J1 students painted Chicago green this summer Photo by: Google Images

Irish students involved in arrests, date rapes, drunkenness in Chicago

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Irish J1 students painted Chicago green this summer Photo by: Google Images

Arrests, date rape allegations, trespassing and sickness were just some of the issues experienced by J-1 students in Chicago this summer, according to an Irish immigrant center.

Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS) has reported that Irish J-1 students flocked to the Windy City in unprecedented numbers this summer to take advantage of a three month work visa, which is a tradition for many third level students.

“We noticed a surge last summer but we saw record numbers this year,” Breandán Magee, executive director of CIIS told the Irish Voice on Tuesday.

In previous years, CIIS surveyed around 700 summer J-1 students, but during the past few months they estimate that around 2,300 Irish students traveled to Chicago.

“There was a huge strain on our services at the beginning,” Magee explained.

Students were faced with normal J-1 problems, such as finding accommodation and work.

However, some students faced more serious issues during what is supposed to be a summer of cultural exchange.

“Eight young men were arrested,” Magee explained. Charged with drunk and disorderly behavior, the students had to appear in court.

“The charges were dropped in court,” Magee said. “Which was good for them, considering a lot of them were doctors and lawyers in training and it could have affected their future.”

According to Magee, Irish students had a brush with both sides of the law, with some young women claiming they had been sexually assaulted.

“We also had over a dozen young girls submit allegations of date rape,” Magee explained.

“We had a dozen people hospitalized for dehydration.  One girl has done permanent damage to her kidneys as a result of dehydration.”

Other instances involved students being arrested for trespassing at the annual Lollapalooza music festival in the city. In another incident, three individuals suffered injuries when they were hit by a car.

“This year thankfully there were no deaths,” Magee reflected, referring to the tragic death of Galway student Keith O'Reilly, 21, who suffered fatal injuries in July 2009 after he dove off a pier in North Avenue Beach into shallow water.

“I shudder to think what it will be like next year, if they keep coming in the numbers they are coming.” Magee said.

“Within the first week, we had about 100 J-1 students that were homeless,” Magee added, explaining that the center’s resources reached saturation point this summer.

Students participating in the J-1 program tend to pay around €1,500 ($1,882) between program fees, insurance and flight costs before they arrive at their destination. 

“Travel agencies are profiting from students’ tickets and visa fees, but when they are homeless we have to step up to the plate,” Magee said.

Accommodation issues arose again this year, with many students crowding into cramped apartments in an effort to cut costs on rent.

“Eight to a two bed apartment would have been comfortable,” Magee said. “Other apartments had 12.”

While many J-1 students are good ambassadors for Ireland, Magee points out that the actions of a few have serious repercussions for other students.

“The majority are decent,” Magee says, “It just takes one to tarnish it for everyone.”

The owner of Armitage Hardware in Chicago, Dan O'Donnell, put many of this summer’s issues down to real estate agents whom he says target groups of Irish students as soon as they arrive.

"We had a situation where there were over 100 kids in one building with 26 empty apartments set for renovation in the fall,” he said.

"You cannot put 100 20/21-year-olds in a building.  It becomes an animal house."

O'Donnell has been helping J-1 students for over 15-years and noticed a surge in students looking for help this year.

"I had 1,550 come through my door this summer. When I started in 1996 I had maybe 75 or 80,” O’Donnell told the Irish Voice.

O’Donnell, who assists Irish students with everything from a job to a bus pass, echoed Magee’s sentiment that travel agencies in Ireland need to do more to help students prepare for a summer abroad.

“They only involvement they have is to make money and put the kids on the plane,” O’Donnell said.
“We do have to give kids some education before they arrive,” he added.

JERSEY SHORE J-1

In Wildwood, New Jersey, Galway native Niamh Conway found herself living in rented accommodation with 17 other Irish J-1 students. The 19-year-old described it as the best summer of her life.

“Eighteen of us lived together…no one really had an assigned bed,” she told the Irish Voice. “We all found work and a few of us had more than one job.”

The three-story, four bedroom house was home to the group of Irish students who met each other through mutual friends.

The Irish male and female students living there did experience some difficulty when some iPods and cash were stolen.

“We called the police. They didn’t do much,” Conway said.

Conway, a science student at the University of Limerick, explained that at the start of the summer, 12 of her girlfriends found accommodation, but after one month they discovered that their landlord did not actually own the house.

“The restaurant next door got a call from the bank to see if anyone was living there,” she said.

Unfazed, Conway explained the girls found somewhere else to live.

During her stint in the Jersey Shore, Conway went through three jobs before she found something secure at a local pizzeria.

“It was owned by an Italian family,” she said.

Working as a waitress and hostess, the student said her Irish accent was a great asset.

“When they heard the Irish accent they upped the tips,” Conway said. “The customers would be telling us they are Irish, but they wouldn’t know where they were from.”

The money, she says, was enough to cover her costs.

“One day I did a 15 hour shift and made $250,” she said. “I usually made about $70 a day and was paid $3 an hour.”

Highlights of her summer included a trip to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well as enjoying the final days of her summer in New York City.

“We did a lot of shopping,” Conway said, adding she would love to live in the Big Apple. But for now, it’s back to college to finish her studies.

NEW YORK CITY J-1

At the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, in recent days, J-1 students have been coming in to print off their tickets for their return flight home.

Órla Kelleher, executive director of the center, reported that there were no major incidents among J-1 summer students this summer in New York.

“We surveyed almost 700 this year,” said Kelleher, who says students were affected by the common problems with work and accommodation.

“The best advice is to be prepared in advance of coming out next year,” she said.

Of those students that were surveyed by the center, some were not reachable by midsummer.

“When we did call the students about a month in, a lot of phones were disconnected or out of service,” she said.

“They realize that if they have not found work in the first few weeks it doesn’t make sense to stay on.”

As the J-1 adventure for this year’s students draws to a close, Kelleher reflected on the importance of their contribution to the Irish community in Woodlawn.

“It is nice to see a young, vibrant community coming in every May,” she said.  “It’s uplifting.”

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