The ups and downs of the J1 experience

Cat Grogan and Ella-Kiely give us useful insights into the popular work and travel programme

A J1: an opportunity that may just change your life if you let it. A degree of bravery and patience are two prerequisites needed to succeed in breaking ground because the application process is no biscuit, and neither is finding your feet across the pond. 

The J1 student programme allows you to experience American culture through a summer work placement. You are eligible to apply for the J1 visa if you are of any nationality studying in Ireland, an Irish or Northern Irish national or resident studying in the United Kingdom, or an Irish or Northern Irish national on Erasmus abroad. You must be at least 18 and at the most 30 by the time you are travelling to the States. 

“The utter independence that you have navigating situations and relationships while finding yourself in a working environment is incredibly freeing…”

The programme aims at giving youth in Ireland the opportunity to develop their characters by working full-time in America, and two things you need to get there are a strong will and the ability to manage difficulties on your own. Although coping with indispensable admin responsibilities and establishing a new life in the United States is tough, the experience is incredibly rewarding. Speaking of her time with friends in the States, College student Cat Grogan revealed: “There are many moments that I catch myself thinking, I really like what we’ve become, I really like what we are doing here and what I am doing here. If you are going on a J1, you are going to have a lot of those moments.” Grogan worked as a sailing instructor in New York during the summer and is convinced that the fun she had while doing so was worth all the stress.“The utter independence that you have navigating situations and relationships while finding yourself in a working environment is incredibly freeing,” she adds. 

The application process, however, should not be underestimated. Finding a job, reaching your agency when there’s a problem, getting your visa in time and taking care of administrative tasks are issues that put an enormous pressure on J1 students in the time leading up to their departure. 

Ella-Bleu Kiely, who worked as a waitress in San Diego this summer, found that getting a job was the most time-consuming part of the application process. She described securing work through USIT, an Irish travel agency for students who want to work and travel abroad, as extremely stressful and chaotic. “They release the jobs on the portal 5-6 times over the course of six months and people need to try and secure an interview with their preferred employer on a first-come-first-serve basis.” If you choose to go through USIT, you need to pay a little more for them to set you up at work, otherwise you can find and secure a job on your own. Kiely highlighted that: “a lot of the places open to students only start hiring closer to summer because they have staff during the year. It’s important not to get too disheartened when you get rejected.” Planning in advance can be difficult, but it simply reinforces the importance of being on top of your deadlines. Kiely confirmed that research and organisation are crucial in making sure you have fewer problems once you arrive in the city of your choice. Make a list of all the tasks you need to take care of and don’t be shy to reach out to people. 

A serious lack of communication and delay in responses caused a lot of worries for many students this year.”

Your travel agency doesn’t always facilitate the process. Both Kiely and Grogan organised their trip through USIT and neither of them felt supported in times of stress. A serious lack of communication and delay in responses caused a lot of worries for many students this year. Hence, it is important to choose your agency well by looking through the reviews and getting in touch with them beforehand to settle any uncertainties. When asked about how much time the whole application process took her, Grogan replied: “I started thinking about doing a J1 during the Christmas holidays and I was definitely applying for my job in early February. I then started my visa application late February. I’d say definitely start as soon as you can!” Knowing what you do not want to work as and what your salary requirements are as well as preferred working hours can help you make your decisions. In addition, Kiely highlights that it is important to know where you want to live. A safe neighbourhood not far from work isn’t always simple due to how difficult it is to secure your accommodation from abroad, but you should do your best to fulfil these conditions because it makes your life so much easier when you arrive. 

Other matters that require you to be proactive and patient are your finances and your phone. You will need to dedicate time to setting up a bank account once you are in the United States .“It’s hence very important to have a float”, highlights Grogan, “because if  you can’t access your Irish account for some reason, you have to make sure you’re not stranded with no money.” Kiely dwelled on the importance of getting your SIM card unlocked before you leave Ireland because you have to get an American one once you arrive. She mentions that she was without service and 3G her first week in San Diego, and that this could have been prevented if someone had told her to settle things with her phone company in advance. To round up our list of admin tasks, getting a Social Security number when you are in America is something that you need to prepare for too. 

To make things less uncomfortable at the start, Grogan recommends doing J1 with a friend.”

“Adapting where you have to adapt, getting up to speed with the American way of life” are things that Kiely saw as incredibly exciting and challenging at the same time. The two College students agreed that there are tangible cultural differences between Ireland and America. To make things less uncomfortable at the start, Grogan recommends doing J1 with a friend. “There are enough challenges like that, I don’t think you need any additional ones by doing it all on your own with no one to confide in the first few days. It’s different from travelling through Europe on your own because working and taking care of admin makes you burn out faster. Having someone to talk to and rely on is more important than I would have realised.”

The most important thing is to be convinced of your decision because, after all, you are going to live on another continent for a few months. You need to be comfortable going into the experience because challenges and surprises are inevitable, so you need to feel ready to dedicate the money and the time to the experience. For all it’s worth, Kiely and Grogan could not recommend doing a J1 more. The fun, growth and independence guaranteed will make your trip worth it, however difficult the process seems at the start.

Julie Frisch

Julie Frisch is the current Student Living Editor and a Senior Sophister in English Studies.