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New York is full of Irish college graduates here on J visas pursuing their goals many taking paths never imagined. Photo by: Getty

Irish emigrants following their American Dream in ways they never expected

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New York is full of Irish college graduates here on J visas pursuing their goals many taking paths never imagined. Photo by: Getty

After the longest winter New York City has seen, and feeling sharp pangs of homesickness, I was relieved to visit Ireland for two weeks in April.

Something I did not expect was the curiosity of people at home. I was pleasantly surprised by the positivity pouring out. Short as our tales may be, only in New York as long as six months, I found myself regaling dinner party audiences of our heroic sagas from stress to success. I never had to exaggerate, sugar-coat or lie. 

Fact of the matter is, contrary to popular belief that New York eats you up and spits you back out, Irish graduates for the most part are finding their feet among the trellises of this concrete jungle and firmly standing their ground.

The year-long J visa available for Irish college grads brings complications of its own.  Limiting us to internships without permission for other employment, financial support becomes a serious issue. 

Somehow managing to sidestep the rules and working for tips, Irish grads have embraced the service industry as a saving grace. Albeit a grim concept, working two jobs here is considered normal, if not lucky – Americans paying back student loans are often juggling several positions. Having a bar, restaurant or café backup pays the bills, introduces you to new friends, and leaves the 9-5 slot open for all the working for free that we were sent here to do. 

Irish people are known for being hard workers with a decent sense of “cop-on,” so it’s no wonder that we are so readily employed and are gathering countless success stories under our belt. 

What’s really astonishing is the diverse range of paths being taken, and the contrast between what we studied in college and the careers we have subsequently chosen to pursue, and which companies we have unexpectedly landed in. This city’s abundance of opportunity has inspired people to move away from the constraints of specificity and try new things, leading to some interesting results. 

I have stuck to my guns, to an extent, having studied English and now working as a writer – how incredibly dull. However, my first positions here included a personal assistant to a celebrity chef, a restaurant manager, and an office assistant at a design and architecture studio. 

There have been many moments where I have stopped and thought, “If someone told me last year that I would be doing this…” Similarly, my fellow graduates are finding themselves traveling down new and unexpected routes, or discovering the possibility of pursuing a life-long passion that never seemed like an option before coming to New York. 

My roommate spent four years at university studying geography and sociology, all the while flirting with the idea of a career in fashion.  Having spent the last 18 months interning over long hours and little cash for top designers, stylists and PA companies in London and New York, she has finally been offered a position. 

Turning 25 next week, the pressure was on to have a “real job” and to be assured that this bold move was worth the risk. Now looking into spending the next three years in New York City, doors have opened, hard work has paid off and the opportunity to work in the industry she loves has finally come around. 

Similarly veering away from college studies, a friend of ours has abandoned philosophical academia and linguistics in exchange for culinary endeavors. She logs 17 hour days, six days a week and is the only woman behind the line in a high-end Manhattan restaurant. 

Clearly this is not for the faint-hearted. Having always displayed remarkable talent, this city’s thriving restaurant industry gave her the opportunity to pursue this passion. 

Her classmate has branched out from philosophy into the literary world and taken an internship at a noteworthy Midtown publishing house. Falling perfectly into the category set out by the graduate visa program to test our limits, she has had to spend all spare time – of which there is very little – taking work in various restaurants to compensate for the unpaid internship.

The world of waiting tables and bartending is not one to be frowned upon. Usually seen as a time “in between” jobs at home, here it is perceived very differently. 

Many of us have started it for the money – which is incredible, some making $1,000 per night – and stayed with it for the career at hand. The skills of a mixologist, sommelier or restaurant server are highly esteemed. 

There is a pressure to be “on,” performing memory tests with a chirpy personality while powering through the mental and physical exhaustion of everything else on your plate. It is a tough industry but one that we are hugely benefiting from, if even as an enabling device for other pursuits.

Many of us are happening upon realizations previously inconceivable. One law graduate in particular has taken a serious turn. 

Having spent his first year out of college taking internships in legal editing and human rights abroad, he came to New York City last year on a similar trajectory. Twelve months later he has resurrected a childhood passion for acting and dance. 

Having taken several classes and embraced the city’s theatrics, he has been temporarily drawn away from law and been awakened to the realization that we are young enough to take risks and give our passions a chance to flourish. 

There is also an influx of accidental adventurers who are intriguing to follow. Many have fallen into jobs and career paths that they never would have imagined before moving to New York. 

Whether it’s designing apps and learning to code in the tech business with a degree in zoology, or joining a dance troupe while bartending to make rent and keeping up a “social media internship” to keep the visa hounds off your back, the city is full of us. 

Peppered across Brooklyn and Queens, the Irish are continuing to prove themselves brave, bold and willing to try. You don’t simply leave the comfort and solace of books behind for a lifestyle like this unless it is something you are truly passionate about, or a risk you are really willing to take.  There is a drive behind people like this that pushes you to grab this year in New York by the scruff of the neck and make it work for you.

Before coming to New York, I was told time and again that it is a sink-or-swim city, and not to feel bad if I failed. Looking around me, I see a group of people trying their best and often succeeding to the point of exceeding their own expectations of themselves. 

Irish people are notoriously self-deprecating and will continually doubt their own abilities, but the graduates out here can take at least a little pride in what they have done – even though I doubt any of us will. It requires a huge leap of faith to abandon home and land in this city lost, broke, and terrified. 

Whether we return to Ireland having taken leaps and bounds in our career, or having simply survived, we will all have a story worth coming home to tell. 

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