On The Waterfront: Tales of the J1 Class of 2017

Éamonn Grennan talks about the haven of the San Juans and the novelty of a more holistic, community-focused J1

Off the coast of Washington State lie the San Juan islands, consisting of Lopez, Orcas and the titular San Juan, with an oasis of smaller islets dotting the periphery. 12,400 people call these islands their home, a number which swells impressively come tourist season. A haven of “white culture” resides there year round, with yachts, holiday homes and immaculate lodgings peppering the landscape; not to forget that Seattle, that most liberal of metropoles, is a one-hour ferry ride away. And crucially, on John’s Island, 5 kilometres north of San Juan, is Camp Nor’wester, my home and workplace as a J1 student for the 2017 summer season, which provides “a unique outdoor living experience for young people” in the purest sense of the word: good old-fashioned camping fun for kids, and, it could be argued, even more enjoyment for the staff.

Credit: savethestudent.org

Crafting, watersports, obstacle courses and archery are just some of the exploits those on John’s enjoy, with campers growing up to become staff themselves, resulting in a large continual ‘Nor’wester family’ through the ages. For me, the headache of organizing the venture was absolutely dwarfed by the reward; so much so that doubts about my planned career goals and journey along my pathway were knocked out of whack, if not completely out of orbit. Now that third year back in Ireland is starting up, how can what I experienced in this job, however low-paying or seasonal, ever match in quality what I always thought was the be-all and end-all for me, but what I was maybe always too afraid to question?

Watersports or water activities are great fun to teach to kids: you get to boss around, you splash and dive like free-for-all, and inevitably you get to bond with the ones who think you’re too cool to be true.

The effect of comradery is magnified massively by eating with and camping next to the kids in teepee units, Native-American style.

As anyone can testify when they adore their brothers, sisters or close teenage friends, it’s the greatest thing to connect, guide and laugh with younger people prone to idolizing easily — let’s not forget a bit of ego-massaging is always welcome, and that an appearance as a cool, Irish kayaker who does what he wants, when he wants (or at least gives the impression of doing so) is always going to be be lapped up. I adored all the campers I was stationed with as well as the vast majority of the ones with whom I completed activities, and to see them go was the peak of bittersweetness. All signs point to me coming back next summer, with tearful reunions and growth spurts and breakfast granola all around. Being a waiting staff at a diner simply has no chance of vying for my, or in fact anyone’s, attention.

But here’s the catch: being a great Waterfront Instructor (still have the name tag and all) means a lot of responsibility, punctuality and social etiquette, but how does it truly let me compete for the jobs I want, at the level I want, in biological research?

The long and short of the story is that  many other science students in UCC and further afield are planning (and getting) summer placement in industry and research, and that to be competitive in what I want in Ireland or the UK, I may be faced with a mini Sophie’s-Choice.

Apples and oranges it seems to be, and it positions that age old divide: work or pleasure? I talk to coworkers at the camp and they fret so much about getting the position they want or if they’ll get to be with their own specific kids again next year, and I wonder if I can or should come back at all?

Supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS)...© 2016 The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS).
Workforce Development & Education Intern and Mentor Summer 2016 July 25, 2016. – Carolina Gutierrez, intern – Ning Sun, Mentor – Biological Systems and Engineering. Community College Internship (CCI).

Perhaps it is all first-world problems: deciding between another J1 or a summer sciencing away in a big important lab, boo-hoo, woe is me. Careers, full-time and part-time alike, always seem to have an uneasy sense of commitment, just like buying a house or getting married, at least until you work your way up whatever ladder you want. However, the opportunity window of living out some youthful dreams is finite and, as they say, make hay while the sun shines. And so I should, as should you, fine reader, if you happen to be a student in a similar position, where a feasible dream presents itself only to exceed your grasp and not your reach.