My J1

Jun 17, 2015 by

I have been thinking about my J1 experience over 30 years ago a lot in the last 24 hours. The tragic events in Berkeley really got me. But when I read that article in the New York Times I was just furious. I expect shoddy journalism from the British red tops. Ironically, for once the Daily Mail wrote a very considered piece.

I flew out to California on a J1 in June 1982. I was lucky I had a job before I left in the Los Angeles Arboretum. I was studying for a degree in agriculture in UCD, specialising in landscape horticulture. Normally students on this course did their year out after their second year and in Ireland. I managed to convince the dean to allow me to do mine after my first year, in California. He had obvious misgivings. The flora was hugely different from here for one not to mention the climate.

I was lucky that my mother’s brother, my uncle Frank lived near Newport Beach and I was able to base myself there for a few days to get my bearings. Uncle Frank was a urologist and had a very impressive house in Corona del Mar. I remember lounging in the hot tub in his garden looking out over the twinkling lights of Newport Beach whilst sipping wine. A far cry from Ireland and from the accommodation I would ultimately acquire. My uncle convinced my poor dad that I would need a car and not only a car, a new car and dad succumbed. I was bought a brand new Mitsubishi Colt. I had barely passed my driving test in Costa Mesa before this. My lovely uncle Frank had taken on the task of teaching me to drive.

So armed with said car I moved up the coast to Pasadena and to my first apartment. I began my job in Los Angeles Arboretum as an intern. I worked here for three months and then somehow managed to acquire another job in the San Diego Zoo. I packed up my little Colt and headed off to work in the zoo for three months. When I say the zoo. I was actually in the landscape department for the zoo. I still got to have loads of contact with the animals. I really loved San Diego and to this day I can still taste the blue cheese salad dressing in The Spot pizza restaurant in La Jolla.

I then moved to my next post, the American equivalent of The National Trust, a house and garden run and managed by them called Filoli. I packed up the Colt and drove the thousands of kilometers alone to where they had arranged for me to stay. A place called Woodside, just south of San Francisco and Silicon Valley where I was put up free of charge by a lovely family called Schillings, members of the Trust who were willing to accommodate an intern in return for a bit of gardening and pool cleaning (lounging). The Schillings were a German American family who had made their fortune selling spice. They were the Schwarz of the Americas. My life there consisted of being called for a G&T before dinner in the dining room where Tracey, Mrs Schilling served the best home cooked and grown food. August, Mr Schilling used walk me around the garden telling me stories and talking about his life. They even put up two of my friends who came out looking for work. I think they missed their family who had by this stage all grown up and left home. They loved the company we provided. I kept in touch with them for years after but sadly Tracey died and I lost contact afterwards.

My point in writing this is that although I was probably a pioneer (very few students went as far as California in those days), I learned so much. I became independent. I learned how to drive, how to manage on a budget, paying rent, telephone, management fees. I learned how to navigate, driving the length of California alone. I learned the importance of time keeping and being reliable. The Americans were sticklers for time. And I learned to be a decent, responsible human. I left every apartment as clean if not cleaner than I got it. I payed my bills. I worked my hours. But, I partied. I lay on the beach on my days off. I ate great food. I got fat. I lost my virginity.

I came home eventually having prolonged my J1 into just over a year and (against my better judgement) I finished my degree and I graduated and began my career in England.

The J1 students who died were just starting out. They didn’t even get to finish their experience. They will never get to live their life and write a post like this. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of students have gone out to America on a J1 and had the time and experience of their life. A few bad apples have given the vast majority of the rest a bad name.

Rest in Peace those who died.

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