American dreamers: Is the J1 party over?
For 50 years, Irish students have been travelling to the US on J1 visas in a rite of passage that defined their college lives. Now, with stringent new rules coming into force this summer, that experience has been changed beyond recognition.
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
Nursing student Sean Nutley can't wait to head to the US on J1 to get his first real taste of freedom this summer.
The 21-year-old, who lives at home in Dublin's Whitehall, has already applied for a visa, booked return flights and found a place to stay - the only thing standing in his way is a job.
"We're kind of ahead of the pack because we started our application before Christmas," says Sean, a second-year student at DCU. "We have our flights booked and have most of it paid off - everything's sorted bar the jobs."
Since 1966, generations of young Irish people have escaped to the States each summer with nothing but their passport, plane ticket and dreams of an epic adventure in their back pocket.
Fifty years on, now a raft of new changes to the Summer Work and Travel programme look set to change the face of the J1 forever.
Under the rules, brought in by sponsoring bodies Interexchange and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the latest batch of Irish J1 students are "expressly prohibited" from working on building sites or in homes as childminders and cleaners like the thousands who've gone before them.
For thrill-seekers like Sean however, who plans to head to Miami with three pals, perhaps the biggest hurdle is 'pre-placement', another new measure requiring participants to secure an approved job in the US before being rubber-stamped for a visa here.
Appearing on RTÉ Radio 1, United States Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley insisted that the reforms would help make life easier for the 7,000 third-level students expected to cross the Atlantic later this year.
"The J1 programme has evolved and changed, and I think improved over the years," he said. "This is one of the areas that the independent non-government agencies who run the programme in the US believe will make this programme much more efficient for Irish students and their parents.
"So rather than having a student come to the United States and then begin looking for a job… that responsibility will have to happen before they leave."
Ambassador O'Malley added: "Under the new rules, it would be discouraged for 30 people to go to one city and not have any jobs, because we know from our experience that that's going to result in some of those students not getting jobs.
"The programme was set up to have a legitimate job and then to have an opportunity to travel throughout the United States, and we believe that this is the best way to do this."
Just seven months after the New York Times controversially described the exchange programme as an "embarrassment for Ireland" in the wake of the Berkeley balcony tragedy, a row has erupted over whether the moves are pen-pushing - or practical.
Back in November, when changes such as pre-placement were first announced, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan warned that moving the goalposts "may prove challenging for many students and this may in turn impact on the number of students participating in the programme."
Speaking to Review in recent days however, the minister played down fears that some students could miss the boat this summer: "For more than 50 years, the J1 Summer Work and Travel programme has played an extremely important and positive role in building US-Irish links. The Government's focus is on maximising Irish participation in the programme in 2016 and subsequent years, and I have asked our missions in the US to encourage their contacts to assist potential Irish J1ers in their search for jobs.
"I know that the US sponsoring bodies and their Irish agents are also working to identify and provide job offers for those intending to go."
San Francisco seafood chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Co and Blazing Saddle Bike Rentals & Tours in New York are just two of the American employers hoping to snap up summer staff at J1 jobs fair in Dublin next month.
After saving around €1,500 towards his American Dream, part-time barman Sean is hoping to be one of them: "It's very hard at the minute to get a job. Everyplace I emailed, they're like 'We don't really know how busy we're going to be during the summer'.
"At the end of the day, it is four months in advance and you're asking an employer to make a commitment. I'm not worried about it at the minute because it's still so early."
Over the years, more than 150,000 young Irish people have taken part in the visa programme that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to scrap.
With fewer places and more red tape than ever before though, a spokesperson for USIT urged the class of 2016 to act fast.
"The important message to relay to students is that the process is more lengthy this year," said Lisa Collender of the youth and student travel specialists behind next month's jobs fair at the Dublin Convention Centre. "Best estimates in order to get someone through the system is approximately 6-8 weeks, depending on whether they have a job or not.
"Places are very limited compared with previous years, so it is essential that people get their applications in early and move quickly on the job front to be sure of getting to travel this summer on the J1."
Despite struggling to find work after travelling to California with seven friends on J1 last summer, Limerick student Gordon Harty doesn't believe pre-placement is a good idea.
"I think the search for employment is definitely part of the challenge of the J1," says the 22-year-old, who's studying genetics at UCC. "I ended up getting a job as a ticket seller at Orange County Fair a month after I arrived. It was one of the highlights of my J1.
"I have a few friends travelling over this summer," he continues, "but I think the new changes will put lots of people off taking part in the programme.
"The stress of trying to find employment online or at job fairs during the college semester is not ideal at all. And I believe that within a few years the J1 programme will no longer exist."
Although attendance at J1 information talks has doubled since last year, according to USIT, spokesperson Lisa Collender claims it was "too early in the J1 season to say" if his prediction will be borne out in this year's numbers.
In the meantime, US Ambassador Kevin O'Malley said he was confident that J1 would be around for another 50 years: "The J1 programme that exists now is not the J1 programme that existed in 1966.
"There have been changes in this programme for the last 50 years - [but] I don't see Irish students and Irish parents backing away from a challenge.
"Clearly, the Irish have an advantage over many other students from many other countries coming into the US, but they haven't all been successful. There have been many Irish students that have had to write back and call back to their parents to secure funds so they could stay."
Just like service providers such as USIT, he encouraged students hoping to work and travel in the land of opportunity this summer to take a break from the books - and get booking: "The J1 programme is not now something to be thought of in May - the J1 programme is something to be thought of in January.
"There'll be more opportunities now [than] there will be later on, so I would encourage students and their parents to become more proactive on this and start right now."
Already ahead of the pack with his application, Sean Nutley reveals he's still hopeful of getting a job between now and May, when he's due to jet to the East Coast with his mates. Either way, he's determined to have the summer of a lifetime.
"To me, the J1 was an adventure," he argues. "You have to go over, you have to find a job, you have to find an apartment - you have to work off your own bat. A lot of that has been taken away [with pre-placement] - it's sort of like a holiday now.
"I was looking forward to that part of it because I've never been away from home for that long. I've always lived with my parents.
"If I don't get a job, I probably won't go to America, to be perfectly honest," Sean adds. "I'll probably go backpacking in Thailand. Either way, I can't wait!"
USIT's J1 Hiring Fair takes place at the Dublin Convention Centre on Wednesday, February 10. See www.j1online.ie