Friday 23 February 2018

8,000 Irish students travel to America on J1 visas every year

Police at the sealed-off scene in Kittredge Street, Berkeley, California, where six Irish students lost their lives when a balcony collapsed while they were having a party
Police at the sealed-off scene in Kittredge Street, Berkeley, California, where six Irish students lost their lives when a balcony collapsed while they were having a party
Emma Jane Hade

Emma Jane Hade

More than 8,000 Irish students arrive on American soil at the start of the summer every year to participate in the J1 visa programme.

The trip can cost several thousand euro and students generally flock to hot spots on the east coast like New York, Boston and the Hamptons.

But sunny San Francisco on the west coast is undoubtedly one of the most popular locations and it has been indicated that as many as 35pc of Irish students who participated in the programme last year headed there.

Read more: Officials begin three probes into what caused collapse

Among the thousands of visitors who have descended upon the college town this summer is David Smith from Athboy in Co Meath.

He is working in a Greek restaurant and is earning up to €80 in tips every night.

"I'm here since the start of June and live in a three-bedroom place with nine others. We are paying less than €267 a month. The hospitality sector is the source of jobs for most of us," David explained.

Read more: Nation grieves as summer of adventure ends in awful tragedy


"In an ideal world, you'd want to save a bit of money, but to be honest, the Irish here just want to enjoy themselves, go out to parties and then whatever they have left over, save up and do a bit of travelling for the last month."

The student said that he plans to work for almost two months, before he travels to other cities, including San Diego, New York and Las Vegas.

"The J1 is just a chance to get away for the summer. We had a big group of us that wanted to travel and we heard that Berkeley in particular was full of Irish, which was a major pull factor," Mr Smith said.

Read more: Berkeley tragedy: A dark, dark day in California as six Irish students killed

He said that the fun is all "harmless" and that parties are generally "pretty calm, which is a lot different to back home".

"There's a great atmosphere, so I'm sure that was the case on Kittredge Street.

"The Americans aren't really big drinkers so most places close at 2am and even the house parties finish up early enough," he added.

"Some of the Irish students here work in Berkeley and some work in the city of San Francisco itself, so it means it's a rare occasion when all nine of us are actually together to go and do something for the day.

Read more: Berkeley tragedy: Students' tragic deaths will hit home for each and every parent who frets over J1 rite of passage

"The weather is good so we all try to get in as much sight-seeing as possible.


"What happened is a major shock to all of us. We spent the morning checking with others to see if they are okay because we are only a five minute walk from Kittredge Street."

In recent years travel agents like USIT have been most popular for the Irish students as they help to arrange work sponsorship for the candidates participating in the programme, which has been described as a "cultural exchange".

Read more: Bohemian spirit and cheap rents draw students to Berkeley

Students who are in full-time third level education are eligible to apply and it grants them access to work in the States for up to four months.

After their work visa expires they have 30 days before they have to leave.

It is understood that as many as 8,000 students travel on the programme every year and in 2008 the figure is believed to have spiked as high as 9,210.

Celine Kennedy from the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco explained they have a J1 programme which they run every summer to "help" students when they first arrive.

Read more: Berkeley tragedy: 'I don't think six people have died all at once - it's unthinkable'

Read more: Berkeley tragedy victims: 'Great, young kids... full of energy'

She indicated that between 1,200 and 1,500 Irish students are expected in the Bay Area this year after almost 1,500 spent the summer months there last year.

"It is difficult, it is a very difficult situation," she added.

"The numbers in San Francisco over the last few years have been quite high.

"We do orientations for the first four weeks of their arrival. We give them local knowledge, local guidelines and local information."

Irish Independent

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