Work and Play: Why you should give the J-1 visa a go
Ireland consistently receives the fifth highest number of J-1 visas with some 10,000 students going stateside every year
US destinations such as New York (above) and San Francisco and City have always been popular but students are advised to also consider less-travelled places such as South Carolina and the Midwest for a more unique American experience. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images
If you ask most people, sleeping six, seven or eight bodies in a studio apartment sounds like a nightmare. For Irish students spending the summer working in the United States, however, mattresses blanket many of their temporary living room floors as they settle in for an extended slumber party.
Every year, around 10,000 Irish travel to America on a temporary visa called the J-1, working as camp counsellors, interns, wait staff or au pairs for anywhere from three months to a year. Out of the 14 J-1 programmes offered, the most popular is Summer Work Travel (SWT).
The SWT programme isn’t just an opportunity for students to earn money and work experience in between academic years. Overseen by the US Department of State rather than the Department of Labor, the programme emphasises education and cultural exposure to strengthen international relationships.
According to State Department data, Ireland consistently receives the fifth highest number of J-1 visas, just behind large countries like Germany and Brazil. Per capita, however, Ireland comes out on top by far. From Cape Cod’s country clubs and Wisconsin water parks, to the bars of downtown Chicago, you will find Irish J-1ers.
“The numbers (for Ireland) are high and will continue to be high,” said Keri Lowry, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for private exchanges.
“It’s in the bloodstream,” said Ms Lowry, who was recently in Ireland to speak with J-1 alum.
Ireland’s inimitable sense of community gives momentum to word of mouth, the programme’s most effective endorsement, she added. For the numerous students who spend one, two or three summers in the US, they’re following a long line of Irish who have done the same since the early 1960s.
“My friends said it was brilliant,” said 23-year-old James Bourke, who spent this past summer working for a Chicago commercial bar designer. “And I’d just finished college so it was my last chance of freedom.”
Eoin Fitzgerald has spent two consecutive summers in the American Midwest. Because he happened to be born in the US, Mr Fitzgerald doesn’t need the J-1 visa but the Dubliner still considers himself a J-1er tracing his parents’ footsteps.
“My parents had done it and I know countless people who are now in their 40s who did it,” said the 22-year-old. “It’s a rite of passage for college students. You just get to experience a different culture that’s not Irish or European in any way.”
Any full-time tertiary student interested in the 2017 programme should start looking for a summer job and destination now. Although San Francisco and New York City have long been the most popular cities for Irish students, consider less-travelled places like South Carolina and the Midwest for a more unique American experience.
Remember, that even though students will earn money while they’re in the US, the application process requires some spending. For the 2017 SWT programme, USIT is asking for a €499 fee to cover recruitment assistance, vetting employers, scheduling embassy interviews and processing all your paperwork. This doesn’t include flights, travel insurance or, of course, living costs stateside.
Irish students can begin applying through local J-1 travel agencies, USIT or SAYIT Travel this month.