I'd never felt as much anger towards a newspaper article as I did on Wednesday morning while reading the New York Times article on the Berkeley tragedy entitled “Berkeley Balcony Collapse Kills 6, Including Irish Tourists.”
What ought to have been an account of the tragedy and its aftermath was instead an attack on the J-1 visa program, and a series of sweeping statements and assumptions about the minority of Irish students who, in past J-1 summers, have caused some serious damage to the buildings in which they were staying.
The insinuation in this article was that there was something seriously wrong with Irish students – that they spent their summers in the United States drinking to excess and leaving a trail of senseless destruction behind them when they headed home in September.
Yes, there were a group of students who caused significant damage to a woman's home last year. This 2014 group “broke doors and they smashed windows; they even punched holes in the walls.” It is the type of senseless destruction that most, if not all, college students the world over have witnessed at some point.
As a rising Notre Dame Junior, as well as someone who was born, raised, and educated in Ireland, I felt deeply offended by the New York Times' article. It was as though the reason this balcony fell was because of all the harm previous Irish J-1 students had done rather than because the design or structure of the balcony was poor.
The authors of the article spent next to no time questioning how a supposedly structurally sound balcony gave way. Instead, they chose to place the blame entirely upon the victims themselves, when it is not even known for certain yet if all or any of the victims had been drinking that night.
In my two years as a college student in the United States, I have been to my fair share of parties hosted by people just like the ones involved in the tragedy on Monday night/early Tuesday morning.
The atmosphere on campus is not unlike the atmosphere of the J-1 summer as outlined by this New York Times article. Students study hard from Sunday to Thursday. Once Thursday night rolls the shackles come off, especially on football weekends. Most people I know turn to alcohol as their way of relieving the enormous stress they place themselves under. Some even get belligerently drunk and do ridiculously stupid things.
At the end of last semester, I attended an outdoor party where a couch was set on fire for no reason other than to watch it burn. I know from what I have seen and heard that other colleges are no different. In fact, Notre Dame's partying habits pale in comparison to theirs.
The J-1 summer is like the fun and partying of Spring Break mixed with the excitement and curiosity of the first week of the semester mixed with the intensity and focus of finals week. You get one shot at a J-1 and nobody wants to waste it by not having fun, by missing an opportunity to create amazing memories.
Unfortunately, this can include some mindless vandalism, but look at any photos of Panama City Beach after Spring Break and you'll notice that American students do the exact same things. None of this means that a balcony should collapse and that the students standing on it should plummet forty feet, as my reading of the New York Times article led me to believe.
The New York Times implied that Irish college students are unique in their tendency to get drunk and engage in acts of stupidity. From my experience with the American college campus, this is certainly not the case. The potential for stupidity among college students is universal.
This New York Times article focuses too much on the nationality of the victims and barely focuses at all on trying to figure out how this horrific accident occurred. Personally, I would like to know the building standards for 5x10 balconies and what the absolute maximum weight limit for one should be – not what damage an entirely separate group of Irish students caused last summer.
The New York Times' article was written in very poor taste. There will come a time for reviewing the Irish attitude towards the J-1 program as a whole, but that time is not today, nor tomorrow, nor any time before the families of those who died have been allowed time to properly grieve.