As the season swells towards another influx of J-1 summer students flocking to the shores of America, current employees, employers and natives alike brace themselves for the usual debauchery.
Fresh out of a grueling nine months of papers, deadlines, exams and an entirely exhaustive social life, they are bundled onto planes with a few hundred dollars, minimal luggage and boxes of Barry’s Tea from their teary mammies left waving goodbye from the coast.
Without drawing too drastic a similarity to famine ships, there is a distinct sadness at home as yet another troop of Ireland’s educated go in search of greener pastures abroad. Those of us here know exactly why they come to the land of opportunity, the Big Apple, this mystical metropolis of hopes and dreams.
However, once we have addressed the necessary romanticism of the situation we can see through the fog of Ireland’s ancient ties with the U.S. and begin to see the J-1 summer for what it really is.
I arrived to New York in October on a year-long J-1 graduate visa, and these past eight months have whipped past in a flurry of various means of employment, chance encounters and movie moments that have met every stereotype imaginable. I was never part of the summer brigade, and now trying to wrap my head around the intensity of a mere three month period in New York, 'the city that never sleeps,' is an insurmountable feat.
Friends and family members who have subjected themselves to the physical and psychological battery that comes with the program have reported a wide range of experiences. Late nights at Irish bars, sweltering city heat, sleeping five to a basement room with no air-conditioning, bed bugs and a mentally unhinged landlady – just to mention a few.
As a clatter of fellow college students one or two years my junior arrived in the last week, I began to wonder what would be in store for them. Some sent CVs for me to transform into “resumes.” Some asked if I knew anyone who could possibly give them a job. Some sent links to various Airbnb or Craigslist posts asking whether certain neighborhoods were safe or if they were likely to find themselves robbed and murdered there.
It is a daunting city, and an expensive one at that. There are many risks involved, and it is a brave leap of faith not to be frowned upon.
While most people return home malnourished, mentally drained and flat broke, they keep coming back for more every year. Yes, New York City is addictive in all its rats, dollar slices and glory, but how does the student who doesn’t even have time to fully settle in survive, thrive and strive to be here?
My words of assurance have come with no sugar coating. Truth be told, I have found it surprisingly easy to find employment as an Irish person here. Any interview I have managed to secure has hinged on my nationality and the American employer’s love for Ireland or their vague, tenuous connection (Cue “my grandmother’s step-aunt’s dog’s wife...” etc) to the country.
However, word on the street is that New Yorkers tend to vanish for the summer seeking cooler breezes and seaside resorts, leaving the service industry struggling in the heat. I passed on some resumes to friends of mine and previous employers at various bars and restaurants asking if they could possibly put in a good word for my favorite J-1'ers. My requests have been met with a resounding “I’ll do my best” considering that staffing pre-summer is minimal as employees who have served longest remain while others get the chop, and no newbies come aboard.
I have heard the odd horror story of doorman jobs that “paid well but I thought I was going to die of the heat” or storeroom jobs that “meant I could afford to eat and kind of pay rent.”
While this contingent of Irish J-1 scallywags get a lot of bad press for partying too hard or “stealing jobs,” I can’t help but wonder which jobs exactly they are stealing, and how they are managing to afford this alleged hedonistic lifestyle.
Of course, there are savings involved, but who can really save for three months in the most expensive city in the world while having been entrapped in the university bubble all year round?
The group I know are a highly energetic, eccentric group of theater folk with an abundance of creativity, personality and passion, and I have no doubt in my mind that they will succeed in their mischievous adventures this summer.
Having known them all through our college dramatic society, I have seen them work until their brains have begun to melt, seen them socialize until the smiles were spilling off their faces, and seen them push their minds and bodies to the absolute limits of human capacity.
As I mentioned, they have been on their game since the get go, applying for jobs months before they arrived. Several have already managed to land jobs before I even saw the first New York City skyline photo tagged on Facebook.
Perhaps these will be the ones to break the mold, to change the face of the J-1 summer and to abolish our expectations of under-age drinking (not by Ireland's standards, of course), loutish behavior and slacking off at jobs they didn’t deserve in the first place.
As employers are hesitant enough to take on kids who will be ditching them in three months’ time, my hope is that this year’s batch are given a chance to prove the contrary, and to rescue our waning reputation among the masses, both here and at home.
Over the coming months I will be keeping a close eye, and reporting on their successes, their challenges and undoubtedly, their hilarious adventures – an integral part of the entire experience, and probably the only part that they will bother to talk about.