(July 11, 2014) Officials from the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. visited Ocean City’s Irish Outreach last week at the group’s current location in the 66th Street VFW – with hopes that next year’s program will be in a more advantageous location.
Homeless at the beginning of the summer, the charitable group was glad to get the offer to set up at VFW Post 8296. But with most foreign students living and working in the downtown area, Irish Outreach Director Rick Fairbend said the group is looking to secure a better place earlier-on for next season.
“Next year, we have to go further south,” Fairbend said. “If they’re not already coming up this way, they’re not stopping in.”
Although it will assist visiting students of any nationality, Irish Outreach specifically targets students from the Emerald Isle, who often arrive in the resort without guaranteed housing or jobs. The all-volunteer organization helps students find work, a place to stay, and supplies them household goods donated by the local community.
Irish Outreach has helped 190 students so far this year – but that number is still at least 100 less than the usual amount at this time, Fairbend said.
Of the roughly 600 to 700 Irish students who pass through the resort under the J-1 summer visa program each year, 500 to 600 are seen by Irish Outreach by the season’s end.
Fortunately, the group has already secured additional funding for next year to increase their rental budget, hoping to find a larger location within walking or easy biking distance of major downtown attractions.
“If we know we can put down money ahead of time, we’ll be able to get them accommodations closer to where the action is,” said Geri Garvey of the Irish Apostolate in Silver Spring, MD, which provides much of Irish Outreach’s funding.
The group also receives backing from the Republic of Ireland itself, via the embassy’s Emigrant Support Program.
“We certainly can’t even begin to match the local knowledge that they provide,” said Counsellor Ralph Victory. “From an embassy perspective, we’re very grateful to have them here.”
Despite having a linguistic leg up over other student workers from Asia or Eastern Europe, Irish youth often arrive in a resort at somewhat of a disadvantage.
Because of its good diplomatic terms with the Republic of Ireland, the U.S. State Department considers it to be a “visa waiver” country – meaning that Irish nationals do not have to have pre-arranged jobs or housing in order to qualify for entry into the U.S. under the J-1 summer work-travel visa program.
As such, many Irish students arrive for the summer without a place to stay or work, and with less oversight from their sponsor agencies.
Increased scrutiny o the program by the State Department has put more controls and checks in place, although many of these are directed more at recruiters from Eastern Europe, who came under the microscope for malpractice some years ago after students were found to overworked, underpaid, and under-housed.
“They have tightened up, but that’s perfectly fine by us,” Victory said. “Even though none of those incidents a few years ago were with Irish students, it kind of brought the whole program into disrepute.”
Fundamentally, the J-1 work-travel visas are supposed to be more of a cultural exchange, and less of a labor program.
Students are given visas to work in the US in order to fund the cost of traveling, sightseeing, and interacting with American families.
Increased State Department oversight has seen an emphasis of this aspect and a de-emphasis on students simply making money.
“The J-1 program is a cultural exchange at its core,” said Counsellor Claire Fitzgibbon. “You can see America on TV or the internet, but you really have to come and live it.”
Between 8,000 and 8,500 Irish students visit the U.S. every year, Victory said – the largest single-country participation in the J-1 program.
“It reflects a very strong tradition of Irish coming to America,” Victory said. “Many students do have family connections and a real familiarity here.”
Fairbend’s wife and co-director, Pat, estimated that up to a quarter of Irish students in Ocean City have been in the resort for multiple summers.
“That’s what we wanted to have, from the beginning, was for these kids to feel like they have a ‘home away from home’ here,” she said.
According to State Department data, 4,518 students from 44 countries passed through the resort last summer under the J-1 summer work-travel visa program.
Ireland was the fourth-largest contributor of students to Ocean City, behind Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova.