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Berkeley balcony collapse: Tragic deaths of Irish students will hit home for every parent who frets over J1 visa rite of passage

By Deirdre Conroy

Published 17/06/2015

Two students comfort each other at the scene of the tragedy
Two students comfort each other at the scene of the tragedy
Shocked people gather at the scene
Police at the scene of a balcony collapse at an apartment building near UC Berkeley on June 16, 2015 in Berkeley (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Toni Mikulka places flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of the balcony collapse (AP)
The Irish students killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse: Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke, all 21 years old and friends from south Dublin. The sixth fatality is Irish-American Ashley Donohoe (22), from California.
Police examine the scene of a balcony collapse in Berkeley, Calif. on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
The remains of the balcony
An emergency worker with a body
A group stands in the lobby at Highland Hospital, where some victims from a balcony that collapsed were taken (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Rubble and plastic cups line a sidewalk below the area where a fourth floor balcony collapsed in Berkeley (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

At the news of the tragic deaths of the Irish students in Berkeley, I had to walk outside and gasp for breath.

Many of my youngest son's friends are in California on holiday. They liked it so much on their J1 visa that they went back at 23.

It would be typical to be at a party every night.

My heart goes out to the parents of those intrepid young people who have lost their lives. They are still babies to us, though they've gone through the Leaving Cert, filled in the impenetrable CAO forms and got a place in college.

The great adventure that is the J1 journey has left me in tears the last few years. It is the first big letting-go.

The special work-holiday visa was introduced by USIT founder, the late Gordon Colleary, and has a legendary place in the lives of Irish graduates.

It is a rite of passage and you have to let them go once, twice, even three times. Parents of students who have just finished the Leaving Cert and are cringing at the thought of the post-exam holiday in Magaluf will soon have the J1 to address.

There is a sort of routine where they go inter-railing after first year, do the J1 trip to Canada (because of the drinking age limit in the US) in second year or a Thai holiday, and the J1 to the USA in the third year.

After all the online form-filling, visits to the gardaí, the embassy and USIT, they finally get organised.

Then it's time to go to the 'Bank of Mother'. My youngest son opted to do his first J1 at 17 and go to Vancouver alone, after his Leaving Cert.

Thanks to Viber he could phone to report that his room on campus had no bed linen. Not long after that, he was duped into a phone package that didn't work.

Minor disasters, of course, and he eventually got a job as a waiter. That was a long summer of worry with several more minor disaster phone calls.

On his second J1 to New York, he and 10 others went off to find work in the Hamptons.

I warned him I wasn't going to be on stand-by for every emergency, and the day before he left, I asked where he was going to be staying. "I've rented a house from Sotheby's," he said.

When I picked myself up off the floor, I just had to worry about losing my own house when the estate agent tracked me down.

All that summer I couldn't contact him, as he had lost his phone. Every week I would get in touch with other parents to see if they'd heard how they were getting on.

My eldest son preferred to spend his summers working in Ireland, so much so that I insisted he go on a J1 in case he would regret it in later life. Off he went to Boston, rented a room with five others and was home in a few weeks, having decided it was a waste of time trying to find work. It's not up everyone's street.

The J1 visa wasn't that popular when I was younger because it is expensive up-front and we were in a recession without really knowing it in the 1980s. So I took off to Australia for a year instead.

During the boom years, the J1 became popular again. Post-graduates can still avail of it within two years of finishing their degree. So now the youngest, at 23, is going on his third trip in a few weeks, this time for a year.

You would think that I am used to it by now.

He recently lost his passport, in his bedroom. I dread to think of the absence and the distance, and after today, like many parents, I will wreck his head with warnings.

Many Europeans have told me that we Irish 'over-parent'. As I don't know any other way, perhaps we do. Our country is so small (and expensive), our children tend not to move away at 17.

So when they first bring up the J1 plans, you think "it's only for two months", they'll be with a group they know, and they should be OK.

Sadly, for the parents of the students in Berkeley, the worst nightmare has happened.

All over Ireland, mothers and fathers will feel their collective loss - it could be any of us. We stand by them in their grief.

Today, I am sure there are parents who want to tear up visas and tickets and pay their children to stay home for the summer. I don't blame them.

Irish Independent

Irish Independent

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