When I first came to America three years ago, I wasn't impressed.
Everything seemed familiar from the movies, and nothing was beautiful in the European sense that I had become accustomed to.
I had a fun vacation traveling around with my friend, from New York to Miami to San Diego to Chicago, but decided I'd never waste spare holidays by coming here again. If I was going traveling or vacationing, it was culture I would seek.
I had read about the massive issues here with all the undocumented Irish and how tough it is for them, and I often questioned their decision to live a risky and illegitimate life just to stay here. There were opportunities, jobs, and everything else you'd want in booming Ireland, and as a Celtic Tiger's cub I failed to see the bigger picture.
Last year, when I was in the first semester of my master's degree an opportunity that couldn't be missed arose - the opportunity to spend my second semester on an exchange program in Cornell University. While I wasn't keen on returning to the States again, I was hugely aware of the benefits of studying in an Ivy League School to my life in general, aside from the academic novelty.
I embarked on the best five-month stint of my life last January.
I fell in love with university life in America, the people in America, and the way of life in America - not to mention a handsome blonde Australian-American guy in America!
The time at Cornell flew, and I found myself back in Ireland hacking away at my thesis, but constantly looking out the rain-beaten window wondering what my next plan of action was.
I had dabbled with law, commerce and French, and all the wonderfully exciting subjects within them in my undergraduate degree, completed a master's degree in business, and still didn't know what on earth I wanted to be.
But I knew where on earth I wanted to be. In New York City.
Going to a city where jobs were being lost at a fast pace and competition is second to none, without any full U.S. qualifications and with no clue about what I wanted to do didn't bode well for me.
But I went over, started networking, a painful process for an Irish person, having to walk into a room full of new faces and somehow try to sell yourself to these random punters.
There were days where I didn't get out of bed, and my boyfriend would come home from work to find me in the exact same place - and clothes - as he had left me.
There were days where I would watch entire seasons of "Sex and the City." And there were days where I walked around Manhattan on my own planning the defeated speech I would have to give my boyfriend and everyone else before I arrived back in Ireland.
I wondered where else to go. London? Too snobby. Dublin? Too small. Sydney? Too far away. Paris? Too difficult.
My holiday visa's expiration date was fast approaching, and I faced a dilemma thousands of people before me also did. To become an illegal alien or not. The very concept I could not comprehend one year ago.
Marry my American passport holding boyfriend? I'm far too young, and that would take all the romance out of it.
Then, as if the man above had forgiven me for quitting the prayer game after my Communion, an announcement was made by the Irish government. A new visa deal had been announced between the U.S and Irish governments, allowing 20,000 Irish graduates work and travel in the U.S.
The extended J-1 visa is based on the original J-1 visa, where college students come for a summer to work and travel, only the extended version is for one year and for graduates, allowing the possibility of jobs higher up on the value chain.
I was thrilled.
The months-long application process was painstakingly complicated, though, and I experienced bureaucracy at it's finest, or worst, I should say. None of the forms required were even in existence yet, so I knew I was one of the first people to apply for the new visa.
Thanks to a very helpful Peggy Comfrey at the Irish Immigration Center in Boston, I finally got the correct forms to go home to Ireland for the interview.
The mere mention of the interview terrified me, as we all know that staff working for the State Department aren't exactly the kind of people you would want caring for your granny.
The process in Ireland was even worse - I didn't have the right size photo, the right amount in my money order, the right online receipt, etc. I presumed I just couldn't do anything right. Or that these evil people made the process this difficult on purpose, to deter anyone who didn't count patience as one of their top virtues - like me.
I finally made it to the U.S Embassy in Dublin, where I waited for over two hours, shaking with fear over this interview. The fear was based on the fact that I had come so far, paid so much, flown home, been through the red tape and had fallen in love with life in New York.
I just couldn't not get this.
When I went to be interviewed, the interviewer looked at my forms like he had never seen them before. It turned out he hadn't.
He called upon his seniors, and I thought I'd vomit as four embassy employees crowded around my papers. I felt guilty of something I didn't know existed, and began to mentally prepare my argument after they would tell me to get lost.
Eventually, it turned out, I was the first person with the forms, the first time they had seen the forms, and now I'm the first person with the visa! What a shocker.
So here I am, the first Irish person to be in the U.S. on the new extended J-1 visa.
Ironically and, admittedly, I was on the verge of becoming an illegal immigrant.
Now I always think of the plight of the hundreds of thousands who are.
I was lucky. I have a loving boyfriend and parents who supported me mentally and financially, and I have contacts here which may lead me to a decent job, but I imagine the Irish graduate students who follow me on this visa might not be so lucky.
If you, or someone you know, has graduated from third level education in Ireland in the past 12 months, has endless patience, doesn't mind being put on hold for hours, can hold a fake smile and has roughly $1,000 to spend on getting the visa, visit Dublin's U.S. Embassy Web site.
It's definitely worth it.
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