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The J1 That Never Happened: How Summer 2020 Tanked For US Hopefuls

As lockdowns across Europe begin to ease, and with the school year right around the corner, the stress and insecurity of the first few weeks of lockdown may feel further and further away from us now. However, many of our fellow students are still just recovering, or are yet to recover, from one of the first and most obvious impacts of the coronavirus: visa cancellations. 

J-1 summers are a staple of the Irish college experience, and have been for quite some time. However, as the world slowly returns to normal, it is unlikely that these will as well, or at least not quickly. Speaking with a number of UCD students who have lost out on their J-1s, it has become clear that these cancellations have had (and will continue to have) considerable and underreported economic effects on a large number of Irish students. Furthermore, these cancellations will exacerbate the tense, slowly souring relationship between the Irish, especially young people, and the United States. 

Student Resources and Employment

The crashing and burning of visa companies like USIT has not just left students without a fun and financially rewarding summer abroad: it’s also left them hundreds of euro poorer. Expecting to make the money back in employment stateside, many students were willing to fork over considerable amounts of money in advance in order to book their trips. However, when the visas were cancelled and the booking companies folded, many were unable to recover the money they put up.

The students the College Tribune spoke to lost an average of around €300 to €600 each, with the highest number being €1,300. Much of the COVID-19 financial support they’ve received has gone to plugging that hole, instead of supporting them during the crisis. And, while a few have been able to recover their fees in part or whole, others are less optimistic considering the financial squeeze their banks and booking companies find themselves in.

USIT’s closure in particular speaks to the financial irresponsibility and instability of these companies. As one student said, “if my J-1 had gotten cancelled because of COVID, and our health, I think we would have had a better chance of getting money back”. Instead, the way in which USIT (seemingly the most popular of the Irish visa companies) folded, meant that students have had an incredibly difficult time getting money back from the winding-up, or from their banks, including those who had tried to “insure” their trip. 

Some students also spoke to the employment issues they anticipate facing in the next few years as a result of the cancellations. The late notice held many back from setting up an alternative form of employment or resume-building for the summer, leading to concerns that the resulting gap in their resume could negatively affect their post-grad job prospects. While the J-1 is generally seen as a travel and tourism opportunity for young people, it also serves as a way to build valuable work and life experience. One UCD Sutherland student spoke to how “being well travelled is attractive to employers”, and because she was unable to obtain any alternative mid-lockdown, she’s especially concerned about “graduating with no corporate experience” in a competitive job market. 

Many of these students will have to work over the course of the college year, flooding a competitive and constrained job market in a city ranked amongst the world’s most expensive. It’ll also be a strain on their studies, one that these students, some of which are heading into their crucial final years, did not anticipate.

US/Irish Relations

The benefits of the J-1 visa programme go both ways. With this system, the United States is able to attract young people across the Atlantic with the promise of a summer filled with fun and financial gain. This, in turn, helps them make a very convincing case for these well-educated young professionals to settle down Stateside, letting them pull the best and brightest from many nations around the world, especially Ireland, just as they always have.

Some might argue that this hasn’t changed, and things will simply go back to normal after the current crisis passes. However, this is unlikely.

The relationship between the United States and the youth of Ireland has been affected by the fallout from the Coronavirus, and the effects of this will continue to ripple long after “normalcy” resumes. 

The first and most obvious factor is the financial turmoil these Irish-based American visa companies face. Because of the bureaucracy involved in securing a J-1 visa, it’s a virtual necessity to book one through one of these companies. However, they and the American companies they work with have run into serious financial difficulties, and have either folded or are unlikely to get moving again at full force soon. It’s also doubtful that, in the current American political climate, we’ll see a loosening of any of these strict immigration guidelines, which means that booking through a company will continue to effectively be a prerequisite. 

So, enterprising young students looking to take a summer abroad will instead opt to book with a “competitor” country like Canada or Australia, whose visa systems already require less bureaucratic navigation than America’s. Already, one of the students we’ve spoken with said they’re “telling people just to go to Vancouver instead because it’s such less hassle”. The logic of this is clear. Why deal with an expensive visa process, with a company that could potentially go bust and lose you hundreds of euro, when you could just go somewhere else?

For a while, the answer to this question was simply the fact that it was America. Students were willing to fork over the cash and haggle with the middlemen because the allure of the American experience was attractive enough to make all this hassle worthwhile. However, the failure of the United States to effectively contain the virus, and the social issues this has exacerbated, have accelerated an already-growing feeling of disillusionment of many young Irish feel towards America.

The serious social issues America faces, especially those exacerbated by the virus, have made many less likely to go on a J-1, or to visit America in general. Students who were willing to spend up to thousands of euro in advance for the opportunity to go Stateside, are now experiencing a loss of enthusiasm. 

This isn’t to say that the students all felt the same. One said she “still wants to visit the US some day, but not anytime soon.” Another, who before the virus had felt so strongly about America actually switched their visa from Canada to the US, said “you would feel somewhat apprehensive to go over”, and that they’re “still trying to wrap [their] head around how Trump has dealt with COVID-19 as well as outsiders, and the mindset we’re shown in the media in general”.

While many never completely ruled out a trip to America in the future, this immediate loss of enthusiasm is clear and concerning. Part of what makes the J-1 programme so profitable for America is the fact that it basically serves as an advertising campaign to soon-to-be young professionals. Well-educated foreign people are more profitable as employees in their twenties, instead of tourists in their forties. This, for America, is possibly the worst time for these young adults to become disillusioned with the country.

The idea, ultimately, is for some of these students to eventually move to America, motivated by their happy memories from their summer abroad. Instead, they’re sitting on the couch at home, watching the news as the country fails to effectively deal with a pandemic, in turn exacerbating its racial tensions, political polarisation, crushing debt, crumbling infrastructure, unaffordable healthcare, wealth inequality, controversial foreign policy, and more. 

America’s tight immigration restrictions and the economic failure of the Irish companies hired to navigate them will clearly have the most practical and immediate impact on the relationship between young Irish and the US. But long term, what will really begin to distance these two countries from one another will be moments like this, where the eyes of the world are on America, and it lets them down. 

The United States can no longer expect to completely rely on its allure while marketing itself to other countries, and it certainly cannot expect Ireland to simply follow along with whatever it does. Small failures like this one, in the context of greater ones, will continue to compromise the relationship between the two countries. America cannot continue to disappoint smart, capable, well-read young people and still expect their affection. To maintain its place in the world, and especially its relationship with Ireland, corrections need to be made soon, starting with things like this.

Jack McGee – Reporter