Tomas Shaughnessy was packing his bags for Ireland when he spoke to the Irish Voice about his J-1 visa experience in New York this summer.
“It’s the best summer of your life,” the Galway man reflected.
Shaughnessy is heading back to the west of Ireland after enjoying the ultimate J-1 experience this summer. Living in Riverdale with some fellow University of Limerick students, the 21-year-old is traveling home for his graduation.
After arriving in New York in early June, the majority of the group had the promise of work here before leaving home.
“A relation of one of the lads helped us out,” he said. “We were lucky as we had relations, so we were never really too badly stuck.”
Most of the group spent the summer working in carpentry upstate in Cold Spring, New York. Another one of his friends got a job in Manhattan working in demolition.
“It was a Monday to Friday job and a lot more relaxed compared to home,” he said about his job in carpentry.
“We had the craic and enjoyed ourselves, we were all working, we weren’t scrounging and we had enough money to keep us going from one week to the next.”
The highlight of the summer, Shaughnessy says, was a skydive in Long Island with four of his friends.
“It was unbelievable, absolutely class, the thrill was something else,” he recalls before admitting he didn’t bother telling his mother back in Ireland, to prevent her worrying, “I will tell her when I go back,” he added.
Shaughnessy is due to graduate as a woodwork teacher and has already begun applying for jobs in Ireland.
“I could get lucky, I have applied for a few but no luck yet,” he said.
In the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, executive director Orla Kelleher says most students who the center dealt with anticipated the biggest challenge would be finding work.
“Possibly they didn’t have that much disposable income given the economy in Ireland,” Kelleher told the Irish Voice.
“Most were successful in finding work and made a great effort.
“I think they were resigned to taking whatever they could get, as long as they could pay the rent. They were really good about that and were prepared to put in a hard day’s slog for their money,” she added.
The center estimates more than 500 Irish J-1 students came through its doors over the course of the last 12 weeks, with more than 300 completing surveys based on their experience. The center is in the process of trying to establish a directory of J-1 employers for future years.
Kelleher pointed out that accommodation continues to be the biggest hurdle that students encounter, with some returning to New York from seasonal resorts unable to find suitable lodgings.
“Quite a few came back from places like Montauk and Ocean City where they failed to secure accommodation, despite finding work,” she told the Irish Voice.
In Maspeth, Queens, Sean Barrett from Roscommon is enjoying his last week in the Big Apple. An architectural design student, his J-1 experience marked his inaugural trip to the U.S.
“I cannot believe it’s almost over,” he reflected.
“The first time I went into Manhattan I got off at Penn Station and my back was broke because my head was up in air the entire time looking at the buildings,” the 21-year-old student recalls.
Initially lured to New York by the promise of a seasonal work, upon arrival in early June the job failed to materialize. Barrett ended up living in Maspeth with six girls in a three-bedroom house.
“I was about two or three weeks looking for work, I sent out about 50 or 60 resumes and I heard nothing,” he said.
“I was walking the streets for days but every time I heard no it made me more determined to find something.
“I was also checking Craigslist. As soon as I saw a job posting I would run to the place with my resume, my good shirt and shoes ready to make a good impression.”
In the end his determination paid dividends and he landed a serving job in an upmarket eatery in Sunnyside.
“The main difference is serving is very relaxed and open at home, whereas here the barman and wait staff are completely separate. You cannot just run in behind the bar and get it yourself!” he explained.
Barrett’s summer highlights include a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure, the night time view from the Empire State Building and Ground Zero, which he described as “touching.”
The cost of living is what surprised him most. “You pay for everything, you made a few hundred and save a bit but it goes so quick,” he reflected.
Savoring the last week of his J-1 summer, Barrett is content he got to experience the fast paced life of New York City.
“You hear stories from so many people but nothing compares to seeing it for yourself,” he said.
“Even still the skyline view driving across the Queensborough Bridge at night is brilliant. That will always get me. I am still in awe.”
In Woodside, Ciaran Tolan is counting down the last days of his J-1. Despite not finding gainful employment, he says he still made the most of his summer abroad.
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“I got to see a good chunk of Manhattan and a bit of Brooklyn and Queens, I went to see Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, I got to sit in the audience of the Jeremy Kyle Show, and I hit a couple of museums and saw some pretty cool New York City landmarks,” he said.
Tolan traveled with a group of friends who are all studying at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin.
“Only half of us managed to get jobs,” he told the Irish Voice.
“Leo worked in a stock room in Astoria for minimum wage until he had to fly home, Sorcha had a waitress position in an Irish bar just off Times Square, but was let go after a couple of weeks, Saoirse is working in French Connection in SoHo, Emer had a job in a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn but it was shut down because of building code violations,” he said.
Despite pounding the pavements, the rest of the ground failed to find seasonal work, but remained committed to enjoying their time in the city.
“All in all it's been a pretty good summer just not as exciting as it could have been if we all had have been gainfully employed,” Tolan reflected.