Remembering the Irish Students

The death of five Irish students and an Irish-American student and the critical injury of several others in Berkeley, California, most of whom were on J-1 summer programs, has hit home for me and the staff here at the State Department.  In my role overseeing the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, I have worked closely with the Embassy of Ireland in Washington, DC and officials from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin on educational and cultural exchange programs. The news of this tragedy was heartbreaking.

Last year, during a celebratory alumni event in Dublin arranged by our U.S. Embassy there, I met scores of influential members of Irish society from five different generations, all of whom had participated in a “J-1”, as they call the very popular Summer Work Travel program, at some point in their lives. Irish officials estimate that some 150,000 Irish citizens have participated in J-1 programs since the Exchange Visitor Program officially began.  Prominent alumni span from Ireland’s most famous radio personality, Dave Fanning, to Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton, and countless more. There is simply no questioning the positive impact J-1 exchange programs have had on the fabric of Irish society.

DAS Robin Lerner with J-1 alumni Terry Murray and his wife and Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton, TD, in Dublin [State Department Photo]

The net result is a group of influential members of Irish society across a broad range of sectors, including government, academics, arts, culture, sports and business, that all have a very special connection to the United States. The history of this program has had a lasting influence on Irish and American societies. This is the true measure of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program. 

Let us all be reminded of the importance of people-to-people exchange: for the people who take part in them, the communities that host them, and the countries brought closer together thanks to them. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and the Office of Private Sector Exchange in particular, take very seriously our oversight of the program and share in the goals of the participants to build professional, English language, and intercultural skills.

DAS Robin Lerner with J-1 alumni (from left to right) Sean Sherlock, TD, Minister of State at Department of Foreign Affairs; Dave Fanning, RTE Radio Presenter; and Alan Brogan, Dublin GAA Footballer [State Department Photo]

Working through a privately-funded model, implemented by designated sponsor organizations, we are able to welcome a vast number of visitors.  Opportunities are created for communities across the United States to experience meaningful interactions with foreign exchange participants. In the wake of the accident in Berkeley, Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson eloquently expressed the importance of the program: “…(T)hey come for a summer in the U.S. on the threshold of their adult lives, and take back experiences and memories that establish lifelong bonds.”

At this difficult time, my heart goes out to the families and loved ones of our J-1 family who are suffering as a result of this tragic accident.  We share with the people of Ireland the terrible sadness at the loss of these young students.

About the Author: Robin Lerner serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Private Sector Exchanges at the U.S. Department of State.

Mourners lay candles during a vigil for six Irish students
Posted by Robin Lerner
June 18, 2015


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