Saturday 16 December 2017

States of things to come: What you need to know before going to America on a J1

The latest of our entries in an Irish Independent student journalist competition, in association with

Hannah Popham

DURING my second year in Trinity College, the students union compiled a "To Do List" to be printed inside their annual diaries and handed to the 16,747 students who registered that year. About halfway down the page, number 13 reads "Do the J1 thing, life experiences and all that jazz!"

This is precisely how the J1 visa program has always been perceived; an almost crucial college-going experience, providing it was financially viable. The American government’s J1 website lists that in this particular year, a total of 132,342 students tasted American life on its summer work/travel program. It also claims that in 2011, 45,645 students lived in either California or Florida.

Last summer, I was blessed to have the somewhat unusual experience of living for an equal time on both the East coast and the West coast in these two particular states. So you’re flirting with the idea of a summer in America and imagine it to be quite similar to a never-ending Hollister ad spent splashing in knee deep waves wrapped up in an extremely tanned American, there are several essential things to know about doing a J1.

Firstly, by far the most vital decision you will make about your entire summer is which of the 50 states you choose to live in. I would have laughed if this time last year someone had suggested researching something as dull as the weather in my chosen destination. I was certainly not laughing seven months later as I ran home from the cinema in Orlando, literally drenched to the skin with thunder growling over my head and lightning piercing the horizon in front of me.

However, I can tell you that my boyfriend laughed hysterically when I jumped two feet off my bed on Skype when lightning actually struck our house (this became a pretty regular occurrence). You must beware of the unavoidable fact that if you are visiting the East Coast, you will be there for hurricane season and all the umbrellas, days in bed and abandoning of shoes that that entails. Although only dampened by 20 minutes of drizzle during an entire six weeks, California was not without its weather disappointments either. In California, if you are staying on the coast expect to lose a good few degrees Fahrenheit; San Jose can be absolutely stifling whereas San Francisco can be far too windy for shorts.

If you are aspiring to a Jersey Shore style summer abroad of endless nights fist-pumping and ‘smooshing’ in America’s nightclubs, wait until you're 21 to go on a J1. This may seem obvious but many of my 20 year-old friends were unable to even step foot in the door of nightclubs when we went out, meaning they would constantly miss out on dollar cocktails and an entire room of people performing the LMFAO shuffle.

But the most important thing to do on your J1 wherever you go is to eventually quit your job and travel. This is a trap that many students fall into, becoming entwined in the responsibilities of their job and finding themselves unable to do what is most important. Somehow, I managed to survive all of my time in California choosing not to be restrained by a job. This enabled me to see so much more; daytrips to national parks, days spent kayaking and swimming in streams, exploring college campuses, going to music festivals.

Just try to remember that when you land in Ireland, you will not be thinking about your bank balance; you will be laughing about that day you decided to take a day trip to the ghetto (Watsonville; for the love of God don’t go there) and the time you grabbed onto a poor sweaty American while screaming your lungs out going down the 60 foot drop in your local theme park (which is obviously completely fictional).

Hannah Popham is a Sociology student at Trinity College Dublin

If you’re a student who can write concise, topical stories and is deeply engaged in student life, join the Contributors’ Competition and your stories could be published on Ireland’s most popular news website,, this semester.

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