The U.S. continues to be a popular destination for Irish J-1 visa students seeking a summer experience like no other. With J-1 season about to begin, MOLLY MULDOON takes a look at what to expect in the coming months.

For many Irish students, the prospect of leaving their family and friends behind for a summer spent working and traveling in the U.S. is a familiar concept. The J-1 summer visa program attracts more than 136,000 college students from around the globe to the U.S. for seasonal employment each year.
Annually, thousands flock from Ireland to popular destinations such as San Diego, San Francisco, New York and Boston.

“We have noticed a pattern after Christmas that usually people start thinking about summer plans to head over,” according to Siobhan Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in New York, who says that due to the Irish economic downturn the center is anticipating an onslaught of eager arrivals this year.

“Oz and New Zealand are too far to go for the summer, and many come to New York as they are looking to try and network for the future. We tend to get inundated with the same type of requests,”

Dennehy told the Irish Voice, adding that accommodation and job hunting are the two biggest challenges faced by new arrivals.

Dennehy says the J-1 holders should reach out to anyone they know here.

“Use the contacts you have,” she said. “Start there, reach out to them as they are the best people with a knowledge of their neighborhoods.”

While seasonal employers may be delighted to see Irish students arriving on U.S. shores, certain neighborhoods do not share their enthusiasm.

“They  (students) need to bear in mind that they are ambassadors for their country, even if for only a short term basis,” says Dennehy

“Whatever their actions, they are representing their country as well. There is small majority that can ruin it for everyone.”

In Boston, Mark Fitzgerald, head of the J-1 summer service with the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC), told the Irish Voice that several J-1 students had been in touch regarding their plans for the summer.

“We recommend places to work and live,” says Fitzgerald, adding they have already begun sending people housing booklets in preparation for the J-1 season.

In the coming weeks the IIIC cyber café will be inundated with hundreds of Irish students trying to find work and housing.

“The café will be open five days a week and we will have volunteers helping students with their resumes and giving them interview tips,” says Fitzgerald.

On the West Coast, San Diego continues to be one of the most popular destinations for Irish J-1 students eager to soak up the sun and experience laid back living in California.

“We always have a large number of students that come every year,” says Daniel Sweeney, spokesman for Irish Outreach San Diego, the only organization of its kind in California.

“We are very busy in the summer. From the middle to the end of May students start arriving and almost every day new arrivals are emailing us,” Sweeney told the Irish Voice, adding that many students they speak to are eager to escape Ireland’s downturn.

“The situation at home means a lot of students just like to get out of the country and get over to the U.S.”
Irish Outreach San Diego runs orientation programs for new arrivals, helping them get settled in West Coast living. Areas such as Isla Vista in Santa Barbara attract hundreds of third level Irish students annually.

In past years some groups of Irish students have received negative reports from some locals in the Santa Barbara region.

“Many I.V. (Isla Vista) residents associate the Irish people with loud partying and damaged apartments…some Isla Vista residents worry that the Irish visitors are both disrespectful and destructive,” reported the Daily Nexus, the student newspaper at the University of California Santa Barbara during the summer of 2009.

Despite the reckless behavior of some students, the work ethic of previous Irish J-1 visa students means that some companies contact the Outreach Center year after year, eager to hire Irish students.

“We have contact with employers here, and retailers at some department stores know they had Irish students last year and they will make contact with us again,” says Sweeney.

Each summer the task of finding a place to live and secure employment proves difficult for many J-1 students.  Disillusioned, some return to Ireland, unable to find work.

Last week, the State Department announced it intends to crack down on the J-1 student worker visa program in an attempt to stop increasing levels of fraud and abuse.

A pilot version of the State Department regulatory expansion for 2011 will mandate that J-1 students from Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine and Romania must secure an approved and vetted job placement prior to their visa approval.

The State Department is expected to extend the regulations to students coming from all nations other than Ireland and England by 2012.

Dennehy says that visa agencies in Ireland could do more to help students struggling with the adjustment.

“It’s very easy to sell you your ticket and send you on your way,” she says.

“I would love to see some of the groups get more involved on the ground to try and help students ease that burden,” she added.

One last word of advice for incoming students? “Get out your parents’ address book and start clamoring through it for contacts in the U.S.,” Dennehy says.

“And pray for nice weather!”