My J1 internship story
It’s not often that I find a good J1 intern story on the web and I remember my 18 year old self searching for internships in the US and frantically looking for any sort of “human” feedback from J1 interns who have “been there” and seen it all.
What is it like to be a foreign intern in the US? Is it scary? Is it easy to find a place to live? Is it expensive? And, most importantly, is the program worth it?
I found answers to these questions all on my own, the hard way, but I want to make it easier for you. So here is my J1 internship story. (And, to answer the most important question, yes, the program was well worth it.)
Back in 2006 I was a student of an international university in Lithuania. Doing well academically, earning crazy money prepping people for standardized English tests and enjoying my full scholarship. I had great friends and met my future husband at that school (though if you told me then that I will end up marrying that guy 5 years later, I would have punched you in the face). There was one problem, though. Two problems, actually.
1. I was bored.
2. I was comfortable.
Neither of the two things were good, I realized that much. Add to that the fact that it was next to impossible for me, a non-EuropeanUnion student, to find any sort of “real” work or training. Trust me, I tried, for 2 years, every single day, I tried to break through bureaucratic walls and land an internship or at least an entry-level job. I realized that all my efforts were futile and I am better off devising an escape plan.
My first attempt at escape happened in the summer of 2006. After a week of debauchery during a student conference in Greifswald, Germany, I found myself at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania attending the Global Village program. My summer was all set but I woke up each day dreading the thoughts of my return to Lithuania with no job prospects whatsoever. I was not ok watching other students from “civilized” Europe grow professionally while I spent my time studying, doing odd jobs or volunteering at my school. It was unfair. So I kept on applying for literally anything that came my way all through the summer: schools in the US and Japan, internships in Europe and US, jobs.
And one day in July of 2006 I got an email that changed my life.
I was subscribed to updates of the US embassy in Belarus (I am from Belarus) and through that email list I found out that a J1 sponsor agency in New York was looking for a trainee. I sent my resume right away, got a call pretty much right away and got an acceptance letter the day after. Boom! By the time the Global Village program ended in August, I was making plans to fly back home to switch to the J1 training visa and start my 18-month internship in New York.
To say that the transition from Lithuania to New York was smooth and painless would be a lie. While I was excited for the new chapter in my life to begin, my parents were totally freaked out.
They did not understand what sane person would quit their college midway, renounce a full scholarship and run away to the unknown to get paid barely enough to get food.
They were worried sick but seeing how badly I wanted that internship, they did not intervene, and I respect that. Consider that they already let me go once at age 15 to study in California and live with a strange family, and you can probably understand how immensely I love and respect my parents. Will I have enough courage to let go of my kids like that? I often wonder. But back to the story…
J1 training visa interview
Even though I was subject to the 2-year rule after the Global Village program, my interview for J1 training visa was pretty smooth and straight-forward. I did my homework, I knew my program dates and learned my training plan by heart like a poem. At that time I had no plans of staying in the US beyond my training visa and I was still officially enrolled at my school in Lithuania. My English was good enough for the program and I raised no red flags. Got the visa stamp next day, got myself a cheap flight to New York and next thing I know I am IN New York.
Time to answer my very own questions from 2006.
What is it like to be a J1 intern in the US?
Since it was my 3rd J1 visa (and there are many different types of J1 visas), I was very familiar with the country and its culture. The language was not an issue either. The main difficulty was getting myself adjusted to the office life. When you spend your days running around campus in the mornings and living on your own schedule in the afternoons, an 8+ hour confinement of the office is very daunting, no matter how exciting your training is. Not to mention that I had no idea how to fax or answer customer calls.
My mentor and supervisor kept telling me that I sound incredibly mean and unfriendly on the phone.
My dress code was of major concern as well, I had to tone it down quite a bit.
Though all those things seemed terrible at the time and I felt like I was failing at my internship, it turned out I was doing quite well and my learning progress was exponential. In the office, people treated me with respect and admiration for being away from home and dropping out of college in another continent to become an intern in the US. And there is no doubt that my office people learned the difference between Russia and Belarus. I had to literally create an awareness campaign to avoid being called “the Russian”. I have a peace of mind knowing that 50+ people on Long Island, New York now know the difference between Belarus and Russia. I am so proud!
Is it easy for J1 interns to find a place to live?
My case was in many ways ideal – my company provided me with housing – a small upstairs part of a house with 2 bedrooms, a small living room and a small kitchen. I had a female intern living with me and we had plenty of space for 2 people. Was housing expensive? Yes, it is New York, after all. I could probably find cheaper options in other towns but my house was a block away from the office and since I didn’t have a car and didn’t feel like commuting by bus, I stayed at that house the entire time.
I realize that not all host companies provide interns with housing but that doesn’t mean they won’t help you find one. In fact, we at IIUSA encourage host companies to assist interns with housing as much as possible. That means that you may get housing recommendations from your host company even before you land in the US.
The first two options are very temporary in nature but you can get lots of tips about good places to live in the area and may even find out that your host’s friend is looking for a roommate. Not to mention that both these options are great ways to make friends in the area.
Craigslist is a great way to find apartments for long-term rent but in your case I would suggest looking for short-term rent options in the Housing > Sublets & Temporary section of the local Craigslist. This will buy you a few months of extra time to figure out where you really want to live on a long-term basis.
Back to school
It is perfectly legal to go to college in the US while doing your J1 internship or training.
Not many people realize this, but since I worked for a J1 sponsor, I knew that I could go back to school legally so as soon as I settled down in New York I started applying for colleges. One of them not only offered to transfer all my credits from my school in Lithuania but also gave me a scholarship and enrolled me in the school’s honors program.
Though I was worried that my boss would have a problem with me going back to school, he offered to subsidize part of my education. Add to that the fact that I got my internship transferred as 12 work experience credits, which saved me thousands of dollars, and you can say that I studied in a private US college on a budget. Still, I barely made my ends meet, I ate crappy pasta and can food but I made it. My favorite pastime was counting down credits and days to my graduation. Looking back, I still can’t believe I managed to pull all of this off!
Was the J1 internship worth my time and money?
Yes! Yes and a million more times: Yes! At 19, stuck and desperate in Lithuania, the J1 internship was the best thing that could happen to me. My views on life changed dramatically since then, there are many things I wouldn’t do now that I did before but I have absolutely no regrets about my J1 program.
In fact, having been on a dozen different US visas before the J1 internship and after, I can tell you that this is probably the best visa you can get.
You get trained professionally, you get paid for it, you save big on taxes, you can study, you can travel around the US for a month when your program is done, you are a different person after the program. Needless to say, I recommend J1 internship program without hesitation.
P.S. If any of you wonder how I managed to get the 18-month J1 training visa at 19, it is because the regulations were different then but if you are unsure whether you are eligible for J1 training or J1 internship, take a look at the J1 eligibility infographic I made or contact us.