‘My J-1 in Cape Cod was one of my favourite summers’
Jenna Clarke-Molloy reflects on her time in Massachusetts as applications open for 2018
More than 500 seasonal workers were hired for the summer season, many of whom were Irish J-1ers like me.
Visiting the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, the Las Vegas strip… a summer spent in the United States on a J-1 summer work and travel visa is considered one of the defining times in a young Irish person’s college life, often punctuated with visits to some of the great sites in the “Land of the Free”.
In the summer of 2016 my J-1 brought me to a small town on the idyllic peninsula of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, to work as a waitress in a luxury resort. The previous months had seen me pinching pennies to put towards the cost of the visa, while filling out seemingly endless paperwork to do with visas, jobs and insurance.
Finally, my friends and I made it Brewster in June.
Although it seemed to be little more than a through road, the resort and golf club where I had secured a job as a waitress were well known, and one of the biggest sources of employment for students on the Cape during the summer months. More than 500 seasonal workers were hired for the summer season, many of whom were Irish J-1ers like me.
I travelled with two friends who also worked in the resort, though in different areas. We found accommodation in a kind landlord’s basement a short cycle from work.
There were a lot of Eastern European workers in my restaurant, and between the Irish, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarians and Macedonians, we outnumbered the Americans working there.
Day to day, I was slagged for how quickly I spoke, as my co-workers imitated my lilt, asking me “what’s the craic?” We celebrated the Fourth of July in Provincetown, a larger more touristic town at the tip of the Cape. We spent another weekend in Provincetown whale watching, and travelled to Boston to watch a Red Sox game.
We worked up to 40-hour weeks, and were paid reasonably well. The cost of living isn’t particularly high on the Cape as it’s a relatively rural area, so we could live rather cheaply and spend our money on travelling and socialising with friends. House and beach parties were regular occurrences, and if we were not attending one we would meet in the local pub after work for an hour or two. It all felt very familiar, just with new friends in a more picturesque setting.
Around the midpoint of my summer in the States, I was selected by my US visa sponsor following an essay application to attend a Civic Leadership Summit in Washington DC. I was flown to DC and put up in university accommodation by my sponsor.
I thought I was having a multi-cultural experience in Massachusetts, but what I experienced in Washington DC was on another level. Sixty-three delegates from 32 countries, all on J-1s, came together to discuss the social issues in their home countries, and how to combat them through social entrepreneurship.
I was added to several Facebook groups to help us keep in contact. In recent months there has been a lot of chatter on these groups regarding president Donald Trump’s promise to discontinue the programme, and the hashtag #SaveJ1 was bandied about a lot.
I’m so pleased to see that the programme is going ahead for next year at least, to allow other young people the same opportunity I had.
Towards the end of the summer, people started to leave the Cape to embark on the ‘Travel’ portion of the ‘Summer Work and Travel’ programme. As we didn’t start back in college until late September, we had opted to stay and work until Labour Day weekend (the first weekend in September), and then travel the east coast for two weeks.
All through August we’d get messages inviting us to “Farewell drinks” and end of summer parties. It was surprisingly sad to see everyone leave. Although we’d known each other only a short time, a large number of the seasonal workers, and even some of the younger full time members of staff had become close friends. We had seen and worked alongside each other every day for several months. It was a shock to realise they would be driving from the Grand Canyon to San Diego, while I would still be serving sandwiches to golfers.
By the time Labour Day rolled around, I was ready to go. That didn’t stop me bawling my eyes out on my last day, but the departure of my friends had prepared me.
We set off for Boston for a few days, then to New Jersey and finally New York. We climbed to the top of the Prudential Building, wandered Faneuil Hall, and visited the (then new) Primark in Boston -because it just couldn’t be the same as any old Penneys at home - while in New York we took the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and saw a Broadway show.
Leaving from New York in mid-September, I felt it was time to go home and get back to college life.
It’s the time I spent working on the Cape with friends that I really miss. We still keep in close contact. One of my American friends came to visit this year for St Patrick’s Day, and I have promises from many more to come too. While on a family holiday to the US this summer, I went back to visit some of my old colleagues at the resort, which made me very nostalgic.
The J-1 summer work and travel visa allowed me to have what is still one of my favourite summers. While Trump may say that tightening up on immigration will solve a whole host of security and economic issues, I strongly doubt that putting an end to the J-1 programme will provide the solution he is seeking. The vast majority of jobs J-1 participants hold are seasonal; the students who work them are not taking full-time positions from American citizens.
I would strongly recommend anybody considering taking part in the programme to do so. If your friends from home don’t want to go, it doesn’t matter, you’ll make friends there. I went with two of my best friends, but we each made our own friends and socialised with them separately and together as a group. It’s an opportunity that won’t always be available to you, so you should make the most of it when you can (or while Trump allows you).