First things first: what are you doing for the summer?

With students facing a choice between career-enhancing work experience or spending a summer waiting on tables, which is winning out?

Dining experience: students are still keen to work abroad during their summer holidays. Photograph:  Franck Prevel/AP

Dining experience: students are still keen to work abroad during their summer holidays. Photograph: Franck Prevel/AP


With the immediate future being painted as cash-strapped and bleak for most students and new graduates, it is no surprise that we are looking for an escape, particularly during the summer. With increasing numbers of families struggling financially, however, working holidays also seem more popular. Jaunts around Europe and southeast Asia are taking a back seat in the minds of many students, but applications for J1 work-and-travel visas are on the up.

Louise McLoughlin, a journalism student at DIT, says a J1 is “a lot more beneficial than going to somewhere such as Thailand and just drinking away a month ”.

The American embassy says that the number of Irish students going to the US for the summer has increased from 6,731 students in 2009 to more than 10,300 last year. This is the largest contingent of Irish students to choose J1s since 2001.

Students say that, besides the ability it gives them to earn money while they a re away, they like J1s for helping personal development and increased maturity, which they feel they get only through living, working and supporting themselves while abroad.

“I think it’s really good for students to live away from home and learn how to live with a group of their peers,” says Emily Longworth, a science student at University College Dublin. “I t’s an idealised snippet of the real world. S tudents get the opportunity to undertake the responsibilities of supporting themselves, but on a short-term basis. It’s a taster of adulthood.”

Career ladder
While this kind of growth is all well and good, many who choose to stay at home seek out work placements and internships to help them get a foot on the career ladder in an increasingly competitive job market.

Last year new regulations limited the types of employment that can be undertaken while in the US on a J1. Alt hough the rules were strict to begin with, now any work that could be seen to train students or to enhance their career prospects comes under further scrutiny. This extends to placements, as a new, more expensive and more complicated internship J1 was created to cover this area.

The change affected Craig O’Hare’s decision. He is studying immunology at Trinity College Dublin. “Filing can even be called in to question sometimes, because it’s supposedly professional development,” he says.

“ A lot of people who go on J1s , in my experience, come back and say, ‘Okay, I’ve had great fun but I wish I [had done] something more professionally orientated, because now I’m trying to look for jobs and I have no experience.’

“A lot of people will have sought practical experience here for their degree between their third and fourth years, and things are so competitive now that some people would definitely feel they had shot themselves in the foot.”

Al though Longworth notes the personal benefits of a J1 summer, for her it wasn’t the best way to spend the time . “Even though it was never a certainty, the idea of an internship [in Ireland], for me, because I love my degree, was much more appealing than a summer of non specialised work,” she says.

“ A few years ago students would have been a little more relaxed, but with greater numbers of people in third-level education than ever, obviously standards have risen, and so have the ambitions.”

Al though Kevin Beirne, who is studying economics at UCD, considered both sides, for him the balance tipped in favour of a summer in New York c ity. “Going on a J1 does take away from doing any summer internships, and I was very aware of that, but at the same time I’m 21 and still young enough to go away for the summer,” he says. “ It’s important to have fun as well.”

Aoife Kirk, a medical student at NUI Galway, found herself in a similar situation this year when deciding whether to return to Montauk, in New York state. “The only thing is that a lot of people in my class will be doing research this summer, which would enhance their CV, so I’m missing out on that aspect,” she says, before saying it wasn’t a big enough concern for her to cancel her J1 plans.

A friend of Kirk’s, who is travelling with her, is happy to take up work in restaurants and bars in the US to fund her education here, but Craig O’Hare doesn’t regard that type of work as the best use of the summer . “I could go over now and work in a restaurant, but I’ll be a graduate, and I should be looking for something applicable to my career, so that wouldn’t really benefit me. ”

Eoin Blaney, who is studying commerce at University College Dublin and spending the summer in San Francisco, disagrees, saying that there are professional gains to be made in the service industry. “You’d get more experience worldwide, so if you’re going for an interview you can say, ‘I lived in the US for a summer and worked in a restaurant.’ ”

“These things always figure themselves out,” says Beirne when considering his American job prospects. At the forefront of his mind is not the risk of landing halfway around the world, homeless and jobless, but of leaving Ireland for the summer.

“I could be doing something towards building a professional career, but that scares me. I don’t want to have to deal with being a grown-up yet,” he says. “I see this as my last long holiday before I try to build a career . People like having fun, but they don’t really focus on it too much .”

With competition mounting between students and graduates for jobs, internships and work placements, it seems the pressure throughout the year is becoming almost too much, with students often choosing to see their summers as downtime rather than as time that could be spent developing their CVs.

Blaney says, “Most people I’ve talked to don’t mind giving up an internship for a J1 summer; they just have more of an urge to go abroad. They need to get out of this place for the summer.”

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