Summer jobs, lifelong memories


This summer, Irish students are finding it difficult to get seasonal jobs at home, and those who work abroad, or go away as an intern, a volunteer or on a J1, can come home with valuable life skills

THE PROSPECT of yet another boozy sun holiday in Spain loomed as Andrew Lavelle approached his final exams at UCD in May, but the 21-year-old commerce student was looking for a more productive way to spend his last college summer than lazing on a sun lounger swilling cocktails.

On a study break from the library one afternoon, Lavelle spotted a poster advertising cultural exchange programmes in Brazil, Ghana and Romania run by Aiesec, an international youth organisation that arranges internships and placements for young people all over the world.

“I have no idea what I want to do now that I have my degree, but going to a new country on my own and meeting new people seemed like a challenging and worthwhile thing to do,” he says.

For six weeks this summer, Lavelle is stationed on the island city of Florianópolis in Brazil with six students from Mexico, Bolivia, Columbia and the Netherlands. The group is spending a few days in one of 10 selected schools, teaching the children about the culture and customs in the country they are from. Afternoons and weekends are spent surfing on one of the island’s 42 beaches, or exploring the forested interior.

“The experience has made me realise that I would like to live abroad for a few years, to learn a new language and work somewhere else,” he says. “A few of my friends have contracts with accounting firms in Dublin, but that’s not for me for the moment. This trip has inspired me.”

With an increasingly competitive market for graduate jobs here in Ireland, many Irish students are using their summer holidays to work, intern or volunteer overseas as a way to boost their CV, make contacts and gain a taste for what it is like to live in another country, according to Seán Gannon, director of the Careers Advisory Service (CAS) at Trinity College Dublin. More than half of the positions advertised through the CAS Vacwork programme this summer have been with companies overseas.

“Placements abroad can give students an opportunity to gain experience in a role that may not be available here in Ireland,” Gannon says. “Internships are also becoming a more important part of the recruitment process, especially among major multinational companies who use them to spot talent for the future. Interns who perform well during their summer placement are often invited back by the company when they finish their degree, so for those looking to move abroad when they graduate, it can be worthwhile to forge those connections early.”

But work experience doesn’t have to be career-oriented to be valuable, and employers will recognise the life skills learned by students who spend a summer abroad, no matter what the role is, says Gannon. “It gives them independence by removing them from their familiar support networks and activities. Having to organise accommodation and work in a new city and a new culture helps people to develop very useful skills for the future.”

With a shortage of summer jobs at home, going abroad to work in the retail or service industry is very attractive to Irish students who want to have fun before returning to their studies, says Caroline O’Brien, operations manager with the student travel company Go4Less.

“Young people have less disposable income now to spend on backpacking holidays around Europe or southeast Asia, which were popular a few years ago,” she says. “Working holidays have more appeal; they may not be able to save money while they’re abroad, but at least they have a chance to break even.”

ALTHOUGH APPLICATIONS for J1 visas for the US have declined over the past few years, O’Brien believes the numbers have picked up again this year, with an increasing percentage of Irish students opting to spend the summer in Canada. “They have to apply for a year’s working holiday visa for Canada, but use only three months of it. Many of them have siblings or friends who have emigrated there, and others are looking to test the water to see if it is somewhere they would like to live when they finish their degree,” she says. “For some, the work they do during the summer could lead to sponsorship or to a job offer for the future.”

Seasonal work in the US is not as easy to get as it was, but the situation is improving, and a little preparation goes a long way, according to Celine Kennelly of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center in San Francisco, which has dealt with more than 500 J1 students this year.

“Most of them have found work at this stage, but those who came earlier in the summer were more successful. Just two weeks can make a huge difference; there are only so many jobs,” she says. “Having an American-style resumé prepared before arrival really helps too.”

The biggest challenge J1 students faced this year was finding accommodation, as the reputation of Irish students has been damaged by high-profile incidents of antisocial behaviour and vandalism in Santa Barbara and San Diego, where apartments and houses were trashed.

“Unfortunately, the behaviour of a few has made things very difficult for those who have come over here after them. Many landlords have stopped renting to J1 students because they don’t respect the property that is rented to them, but we warn all the young people we deal with to behave themselves because the reputation of Irish people is in their hands,” says Kennelly.

“The J1 summer is fun, and that’s the draw for most of the Irish students who come out here with their friends. If they are lucky enough to get a good job it can give them valuable experience that looks great on their resumé when they go back home, as well as having a great summer.”

The J1 student

Marie Crossan, 21

I had such a good time in San Francisco last summer that I had to come back again this year. I finished my undergraduate degree in law at NUI Galway in May, and in September I’ll be starting a masters at King’s College, in London.

This is my last summer as a student; my last blast before entering the workforce.

Last summer I lived in a frat house with a bunch of American students, but this year I’m staying in a private, five-bedroom house in Berkeley with three friends from Donegal and 12 other Irish people.

I thought it would be a disaster living with so many others, but everyone is up for the craic and it has worked out really well.

Because we work different schedules, we are rarely all in the house at the same time.

Some of the others found it difficult to get work, but I got a hosting job in an upmarket café within five days of arriving. I work from nine to five, Monday to Friday, and have the evenings and weekends free.

Every time I ring home my mother tells me about the rain in Donegal, but the weather is gorgeous here all summer.

Before we fly home, we’re going to do a road trip to visit Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego; we might never get a chance to come back to the US, so we want to take in as much as we can.

The J1 visa is a fantastic opportunity for Irish students to get a taste for living and working abroad. Ireland is so gloomy at the moment, why wouldn’t young people want to get away from that for three months and see another part of the world?

The intern

Carolyn Walsh, 21

I’m in my third year of studying food science at UCC, and as part of the course I had to do a summer internship. The idea of going abroad for the summer really appealed, and I was accepted by Coca-Cola, in Brussels, along with four other girls from my class.

It was daunting at first, but once I got used to the idea I was delighted I had chosen to go to another country. There’s very little going on in Cork this summer and my friends who are still at home are struggling to find work.

The internship is really challenging and I’m learning a lot but having fun at the same time. Brussels is a really diverse city with a strong Irish community, and there’s something on every night of the week here. I’m from Blackrock in Cork, and before I came to Belgium I was living at home. I never had the college experience of living with friends, but here I have to cook and clean for myself.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll do when I’m finished college, but this internship has given me an idea of what it would be like to work in the industry, and what it is like to live abroad.

The volunteer: 'I realise how privileged I am'

Cian O’Brien, 21

Every morning my teaching partner Kate and I make our way to Chariswer, a small Muslim village about an hour outside Kolkata, in India. The roads are chaotic and noisy. The non-stop beeping is friendly communication between drivers, but our journey offers a rare opportunity for reflection as the streets of Kolkata are gradually replaced by fields.

Chariswer NCLP is a non-government school that opened last month as part of the National Child Labour Project. The children range from four to 15, and most have never been to school.

As we arrive we are greeted with screams of “Hi Auntie, hi Uncle” from the children. The school day lasts from 11am to 4pm. Lunch, which generally consists of rice with potato curry, is provided by the NGO Development Action Society that runs the school, and is very important, as malnutrition is common. The school is dark and cramped, and the roof leaks, but the children are bright, energetic and eager.

Evenings offer us the chance to unwind, catch up with the rest of our team of volunteers, and prepare lessons for the next day.

During my time in Kolkata I have learned that happiness can flourish in the most challenging of environments. I have witnessed poverty and inequality. I realise how privileged I am to have been born in Ireland and I know my time in Kolkata will ensure I am aware of this all my life.

The halfway point of my placement is approaching, and the final year of my law degree in UCD beckons. I hoped for a new adventure when I volunteered, and these four weeks have delivered just that.

Cian O’Brien travelled to India on the Suas Volunteer Programme 2012. See

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