Over the coming weeks, hundreds of Irish J-1 visa students will arrive in the U.S. for what is sure to be a summer of adventure. With the J-1 season about to kick off, many third level students will use their experience as a gauge for possible future immigration.
Speaking to the Irish Voice from his home in Limerick City, Andrew Graham was preparing for his imminent trip to New York. The 22-year-old student said he is using the J-1 program to sample life in America.
A final year construction management student at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), he reflects that employment prospects in his industry in Ireland are minimal.
“It is hard to get a job in construction, but I am prepared to go anywhere there is work,” he told the Irish Voice.
Graham and his friend Brian Treacy decided to wait until they were over 21 to avail of the J-1 program, which allows visa holders to spend three months in the U.S.
“Myself and Brian are not going for the stereotypical J-1 experience,” he explained. “We want to get a better picture of what life is like.”
For Graham, his journey to the Big Apple is the trip of a lifetime.
“I have always wanted to go there but because of the recession it was not a financial option,” he said.
The two friends plan on hitting up Irish neighborhoods in search of work.
“I think we are aiming for Yonkers at the moment. We know there is a high percentage of Irish living there and Gaelic Park is there.
“We will do anything,” Graham says, “within reason. We just want to pay for our living expenses and have a good time”.
In the middle of his finals at the University of Limerick (UL), Treacy, 22, took a break from studying to speak to the Irish Voice.
New York was an obvious choice for his J-1 experience, having already traveled here four times. The two friends intend to stay with Treacy’s uncle until they can find jobs in a place he describes as the best city in the world.
In preparation, Treacy, a math student, got in touch with various GAA clubs New York and is gearing up to play for Kerry during his time here.
“There is no Limerick team,” he explained.
Treacy says a lot of his fellow students are heading abroad this summer to sample life in the U.S.
“When I went up for my interview in the American Embassy in Dublin, it was all UL students that day,” he said.
“I know 20 students studying business that are going to Ocean City.”
The price of a typical J-1 summer abroad does not come cheap. The average cost of a J-1 visa with flights and insurance included is around $1,300. As well as this, travel agents recommend students have at least a few thousand dollars to use as a buffer while they search for work and accommodation.
“Pretty much all my savings will be used,” Treacy said.
Despite the expense, the two friends are determined to enjoy their time in New York and have already made plans for the summer. The students are already looking forward to Labor Day weekend when they will attend the Electric Zoo music festival in Randall’s Island.
“We want to save money and see all the sites of New York,” says Graham.
If their summer experience goes well, the two final year students are considering applying for the yearlong J-1 visa now available to Irish college graduates.
“I would love to stay there,” Treacy admits. “I don’t think my mother would be happy if I said I was coming for a year.”
Last December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered an “extensive and thorough review” of the J-1 summer work travel visa in response to reports that many students from nations around the world were being exploited.
"We have already instituted one set of reforms and are working toward additional ones that take additional measures to protect participants and prioritize the original cultural intent of the program," a State Department spokesman said at the time.
In response, the State Department launched a new website designated for the J-1 program which details the different variations of the J visas on offer.
According to the website, in 2010 there were 132,342 visas issued.
Numbers for the coming summer J-1 program are expected to remain high. In the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, board chair Agnes Delaney says they have already received hundreds of J-1 related phone calls.
Established in 1996, the center provides invaluable assistance to Irish immigrants who arrive in the U.S, and the arrival of students in summer makes it their busiest season. The organization provides support and information for many students who arrive here, as for many their J-1 trip is their first time leaving home for an extended period.
“When they arrive at the center, we complete a comprehensive sheet with all their pertinent information including the names of their friends, local phone numbers and a family contact number in Ireland,” Delaney told the Irish Voice.
“We have an Internet cafe with Skype so that they can keep in contact with family and friends.”
The center provides students with folders packed with information. They also have bulletin boards with accommodation and job postings.
“We encourage them to check in with us regularly so that we can be of assistance to them,” says Delaney.
According to Simon Gillespie, games development officer for the New York GAA, he has noticed an increase in the number of J-1 summer students getting in touch this summer compared to 2011.
“My first email for this summer was last September,” Gillespie told the Irish Voice. “They are really planning ahead.
“We have been inundated with emails from students looking for clubs to play with and to come out for the summer and work. The emails started coming in December and January.”
The GAA is like a safety net for J-1 students, according to Gillespie, who says that June and July are the peak months for their involvement.
“It gives them a sense of community,” he says. “If they stay involved with the GAA they will be looked after.”
Gillespie says the arrival of the J-1 students is a huge part of the GAA summer in New York.
“It’s not just about playing,” he says. “The students give more of a life to the Woodlawn area.”