Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States

The extended ban on J1 visas is depriving students of a rite of passage. Kieran O’Mahony recalls his, 25 years ago

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Kieran O'Mahony on the roof of the New York Hilton Hotel, on his J1 visa.

It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago I joined the hordes of thousands of Irish students hitting stateside on the J-1 visa.

From ‘San Fran’ and San Diego on the west coast to the hotspots of Nantucket and Myrtle Beach on the east coast, thousands of us descended for a crazy four months of work, travel, fun and of course, the odd party.

It was a sizzling summer back in Boston in 1995 with memories of Rolling Rock, Dunkin’ Donuts, Jamaican Jerk chicken, TLC’s ‘Waterfall’, listening to WFNX and some comedy called ‘Friends’ -that we thought would never catch on back home- all suddenly flooding back.

A rite of passage for many Irish students for decades, it’s been a case of ‘Summertime Sadness’ for this year’s troops of prospective J-1’ers. Any hopes of a summer stateside effectively ended this week when US President Donald Trump recently banned J-1 visas among others until 2021.

It is worth noting though that the overall numbers going on J-1 Summer Work Travel -SWT- programme have steadily declined in recent years from a high of 8,509 in 2003 to just 3,392 visas being issued last year.

A US Department of State official said that since its launch in 1966, the J-1 SWT programmes has welcomed more than 150,000 of Ireland’s best and brightest young people to the United States.

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Kieran O'Mahony at the airport heading off to the Staes with his J1 visa, 25 years ago.

‘In recent years, however, we have received fewer Irish applicants for the SWT programmes, with a steady decline over the years.’ The official reiterated the fact that the US government does not require SWT participants from Ireland to secure employment before travelling to the States, despite this being a common perception.

‘Starting in 2016, some program sponsors of the SWT program began requiring prospective participants worldwide – including students from Ireland, – to have jobs pre-arranged and approved prior to travelling to the USA.’ It was way more simpler in our day. Pop into USIT – who incidentally went into liquidation during the pandemic – pay for your flight and visa and off we went. No trekking to the US Embassy to do interviews either. We were surely spoilt.

Luckily for me, my sister Evelyn lived in Wakefield on the outskirts of Boston so I thankfully avoided the 10 to a house or to a room for that matter, that is a common for many J-1’ers.

The irony of living in a ‘dry town’ wasn’t lost on me either and needless to say it wasn’t a priority destination for any self-respecting Irish student.

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Kieran O'Mahony under Niagara Falls in 1995

Friends of mine were up in Hyannis in Cape Cod which was a popular haunt for many Irish students. Regular trips up to them some meant great house parties, sometimes it almost felt like we were in College Road with all the UCC heads there. They all travelled in their bikes at a hint of any kind of party. And who can blame them because most were under 21 years of age. Needless to say there were many parties. Thankfully, I was 21 but it sure was a pain having to carry your passport with you at all times when socialising. The tipping also just wasn’t in our student DNA but we eventually got used of it. Begrudgingly.

My friend, Louise bagged a job in the Kennedy compound, working for Ethel Kennedy – Robert’s wife – and I remember being fascinated with her tales of working for who are American royalty.

With plenty of experience of working in bars back home, my dreams of a cushy job loading up on tips were shattered soon enough when I found that they were very hard to come by.

Following weeks of dropping off my ‘resume’ at any place that would take them, I finally secured a job in the East Coast Grill restaurant in the trendy Cambridge area of the city. It was hard work in a crowded, sweaty kitchen and Gatorade was my only friend. I even got to cater at an event in Harvard so that was cool.

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Kieran O'Mahony at Niagara Falls in 1995, on his J1 visa

Time off was spent exploring Boston’s delights -including the pubs- and I got to visit New York -staying in the Hilton Hotel- as well as visiting Niagara Falls and even crossed the border into Canada to explore Toronto.

While loving my time there, reality hit home with a bang when I found out I failed my first year French exam. It’s every J-1’ers worst nightmare and here I was writing letters – some might say almost begging – to the head of the Department pleading for leniency but to no avail.

So my J-1 summer experience was cut short slightly and I packed my bags and my rollerblades – an essential purchase – to come home. It was a summer to remember and while I didn’t manage to save much money it was still worth it. Let’s hope those students finally get their chance to do the same next year.

As for the exam, I passed the repeat and dropped French fairly lively for second year. C’est la vie!

Strolling down memory lane Stateside

Stevie G, DJ and radio presenter on Cork’s Red FM 

Stevie G went on a J-1 in the summer of 1994 while studying in UCC and spent three months in Newport and Providence in the state of Rhode Island.

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Stevie G spent his time in Rhode Island in the summer of 1994 J1

‘My main memory of that time there was the music. It was a defining year for me and shaped my whole direction musically and made me realise that I wanted to be involved in music forever.’ ‘I absorbed myself in the music culture and travelled for long days record shopping and listening incessantly to DJ Curty Cuts on KICKS 106 FM. He was very helpful when I met him and he more than anyone else helped shaped the sound I ended up bringing back to Cork. Those three months there will stay with me forever.’ 

Brian O’Connell, journalist and author 

Brian from Clare went to Cape Cod in the summer of 1995 while studying in UCC also.

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Brian O'Connell in Falmouth, Massachusetts on his J-1 summer experience

‘I was in a small place called Falmouth in Cape Cod and I ended up working in an old hippy store and was exposed to a whole other side of American society – from ex Vietnam veterans to former mob people.’ ‘It was an incredible eye opener but also an invaluable introduction to aspects of American culture. Someday soon I hope to go back.’ 

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, editor of ‘The Opinion Line’ on 96FM and regular contributor to ‘The Today Show ‘on RTÉ 

Deirdre went to Boston with her friends in the summer of 2005 and she landed two jobs in the well-known Faneuil Hall Marketplace after a few days handing out resumes.

Looking back on a J1-way ticket to summer fun in the States
Deirdre O'Shaughnessy pictured earlier this year. Photo: Jim Coughlan

‘One of them was in a Harley Davison T-shirt stall for an Italian American biker called Kenny and his Irish American girlfriend Brenda. They were very kind people but they were like aliens to me at the time and were so different to anyone I had met before. I spent most of the time sitting outside reading a book and selling t-shirts and it was a really nice job.’ ‘It was a really interesting and educational experience and Boston is a fantastic city and we did a bit of travel around Massachusetts and to New York. Great weather there and I can say I was absolutely broke coming home.’

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