What started out as a normal Irish J-1 summer night at a party in the picturesque college town of Berkeley, California, ended in tragedy when six Irish lives were lost in a horrendous accident.
It was a night of celebration, a 21st birthday party, which for many in the USA is the signal of adulthood and for many young college students that brings a sense of liberation.
Niccolai Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Ashley Donohoe and Lorcan Miller were just like every other student who has gone to California for a summer of adventure and freedom.
Tragically, their lives were cut short in the balcony collapse that has also left several other young Irish people in serious condition in the hospital.
Every Irish student, past and present, who has experienced Berkeley in the summer could picture the scene, could remember being at similar parties.
As the news unfolded, I was transported back to 2012 and the summer I spent working in San Francisco and living in Berkeley—the “American dream” for Irish students.
I had just finished the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Limerick. My reward was the eagerly anticipated “J-1 summer in the sun.”
I went to California with two of my closest friends from college but as we shared the trials and tribulations of an Irish J-1 summer, we would become a family
When I heard the news on Tuesday, I messaged the two friends who accompanied me, along with the many friends I had made that summer in California. We all agreed that it was one of the biggest tragedies we had heard of in recent years.
This story has had a huge impact in Ireland. The loss of such bright and vibrant young Irish people is unimaginable. And for us “J-1 alumni,” the familiarity of the scene, the normality of it all, had each of us thinking, "That could have been me."
I walked along that same street in Berkeley only a few years ago. I remember that apartment complex and we all had parties. We all made noise.
The Irish J-1 summer seems to only ever get bad press—the students are loud, drunk and badly behaved. Yet, what is important to remember is that the J-1 summer is also a time of great new friendships, summer romances and an opportunity to gain great insight into the American work force.
It is a summer that is a coming of age for many young Irish students and a summer of discovery.
For the Irish students who go to Berkeley, it’s all about having a walk through the university campus, taking a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and yes, going to parties and making new friends.
Niccolai Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, and Lorcan Miller left Ireland for the summer of a lifetime and Ashley Donohue was one of the new American friends that they would make there. It should have been a summer filled with “selfies” and new friendships, a summer of work and play.
Their lives have been cut so tragically short and as the families deal with their losses in California, they are in the thoughts of every Irish family.
For all of us Irish students and former students who has been on a J-1 in the States and shared the laughter, tears and friendships an American summer brings, those memories and the thoughts and prayers for Niccolai, Eoghan, Eimear, Olivia, Ashley and Lorcan are filling our minds.
That’s the thing—we are all part of a family of former J-1 students. We all had that immense sense of adventure and willingness to explore.
Tragically, we all remember those who have lost their lives in Berkeley.