Irish students on work visas gravitate to Berkeley for the summer

Robert Milling, who studied at Trinity College in Dublin, came to Berkeley based on the popularity among Irish students.
Sean Conners/Staff
Robert Milling, who studied at Trinity College in Dublin, came to Berkeley based on the popularity among Irish students.

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Every year, hundreds of Irish students spend their summers in Berkeley. Recognizable to many by their distinctive accent, “brogue,” these young Irish visitors often stay in housing vacated by Berkeley students for the four months of summer their work visas allow them.

This annual western migration has become a rite of passage for many Irish university students. The trips are made possible by the federal Summer Work Travel Program, which issues temporary J-1 visas to students. For the past 40 years, the program has allowed students to live and work in the United States for the summer.

Ireland operates a reciprocal Work and Travel Ireland Program for American students who wish to work temporarily in Ireland. The program, founded in 1976, is less popular than the Summer Work Travel Program.

Thirty-five percent of Irish students visiting the United States on J-1 visas end up in California, according to a survey conducted in 2005 by USIT Ireland Ltd. Berkeley in particular has become a desirable spot due to its young university population, student housing, good weather and, according to Irish student Howard Costelloe, its “funky, hippie-ish vibe.”

Stephen Hatton and Robert Milling, students at Trinity College in Dublin, came to Berkeley on a recommendation from a friend.

“San Francisco and Berkeley have such a great reputation — it’s cool,” Milling said, mentioning the strength of gay rights and activism as one of the characteristics he appreciates about the Bay Area.

Hatton and Milling currently live in the UC Berkeley student housing cooperative Lothlorien — named after an elven realm in “The Lord of the Rings” — which typically houses 48 residents, or “elves,” during the summer.

“We heard that the frats weren’t taking male Irish people, because we have a reputation anyway for being, like, completely drunk and ridiculous,” Milling said. So, instead, he turned to the cooperative system.

Hatton said most visiting Irish students live in crowded houses near campus, but he prefers Loth because it is spacious and relatively cheap.

At Loth, Hatton and Milling like to enjoy the summer on the upstairs deck, which houses a working beehive, hammocks and a collection of worn couches. The house, with its melted candlesticks, empty food containers and hair from a recent outdoor haircut scattered around the deck, is clearly a college residence.

“We definitely have a lot of stories from Loth,” Hatton said. “People won’t believe us when we get home.”

Hatton, like many other Irish people on J-1 summer visas, works in the service industry. He makes frozen treats at a nearby Ghirardelli Chocolate Company store, which he describes as his “dream job” but with many “Americanisms” in the recipes that are sometimes hard to understand.

Hatton said Irish students looks for jobs that tip because Ireland lacks a tipping culture. In the United States, some can make more in one day through tips than through their hourly wages.

When they’re not working, Milling and Hatton spend time on the south side of campus frequenting shops and eateries such as Walgreens, Gypsy’s Trattoria Italiana and Yogurtland.

“We basically live on Telegraph,” Hatton said. “It’s so cheap.”

But there’s one aspect of American life that Milling and Hatton have to complain about: sales tax.

“At home, if it’s 99 cents, it costs 99 cents,” Hatton said. “Here, it’s like $1.08. That’s so poignant with the dollar menu at McDonald’s.”

Contact Madeleine Pauker at [email protected]

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