Six students lost their lives in Berkeley last week giving us all pause for thought on the reality of the J-1 experience. A balcony that should have withstood the strong earthquakes in the San Francisco Fault, collapsed under the weight of 13 20 to 22-year-olds.
The tragedy hit home for everyone in Ireland, as approximately 8,000 fellow Irish students headed to America with a J-1 visa, full of the optimism of youth, looking to have the experience of our lives. Six innocent lives were lost and seven more lie critical in hospital. The devastation that this has caused to their family and friends is immeasurable.
Two of my best friends are on a J-1 in Berkeley and live three blocks away from the accident. Also my cousin walks past the building everyday on her way to work. Any of them could have been involved in that accident. We are all a part of the same ‘J-1 team’ and we will never forget the moment where we heard the devastating news and feared for each other’s safety.
Following this tragedy, The New York Times published a story shaming Ireland and its J-1 experience, condemning the ‘raucous’ behavior of students while abroad. It states that Irish students engage in loud parties and apartment wrecking, and walk away from the consequences at the end of the summer.
While this story is completely insensitive, it also draws quotes from an Irish Voice editor from 2014, making their point both irrelevant and futile. The fact that three journalists were credited in the by-line of the story, is even worse and higher standards are expected from The New York Times. As a J-1 student, I am also deeply offended by this stereotype of J-1 students.
Personally, I’m not 21 and therefore have not spent any of my nights out partying. While there is no doubt that most J-1 students will spend their nights crowded into a small apartment and drinking, the nation has never been held to account for such ‘party shaming’ before and The New York Times have crossed ethical borders in doing so now at this time of tragedy.
I’ve been in New York City for almost three weeks and not once have I fit in to the stereotype that J-1 students have been given. I’ve been to Shakespeare in the park, cycled and boated around Central Park, saw a Broadway show, visited Coney Island and walked the main sites from Brooklyn to Manhattan in order to engage culturally with America. A J-1 is not just a massive party for Irish students. With high rents, food and simply living day to day in these big cities, J-1 students also have to work extremely hard in seasonal jobs in order to sustain themselves while away.
A J-1 is so much more than partying, it’s the experience of a life time, living away from home and visiting places we’ve only seen on Google. It’s also immensely hard to immerse into a strange culture, from setting up a bank account, to finding a job to simply starting contracts with an American phone company. Not to mention the infuriating process of waiting for your social security number, which is needed to start work and open bank accounts. I’m still waiting on mine to arrive, three weeks into my programme.
The J-1 visa is a programme which allows our young people to grow up and experience life for themselves. The tragedy that happened this week is the nightmare of the parents of 8,000 Irish J-1 students who left Ireland this summer to have the experience of their lives. Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan), Ashley Donohoe may you rest in peace.
* Catherine Devin, a 20-year-old Journalism student from Donegal, is embarking on her J-1 summer adventure in New York City. Over a series of articles Catherine will share her excitement and experiences in the Big Apple.
Read more from Catherine: My American dream - Donegal student shares her hopes for her US summer