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On this National Camp Day, read about Fiona’s remarkable journey of self-discovery as a retiree on a J-1 visa.

Posted on Tuesday, November 21st, 2023 at 7:40 pm.

A Leap of Faith

Fiona Griffin is an Irish BridgeUSA alum who spent two summers as a camp counselor in Wisconsin. On this National Camp Day, read about Fiona’s remarkable journey of self-discovery as a retiree on a J-1 visa.

What inspired you to become a camp counsellor in the U.S.?

I became a camp counselor for the first time in 2022 and again in 2023.  It was due to the culmination of a few things that happened in my life.

Firstly, my employer informed me that I had to retire on my 66th birthday, April 2022. It was a company policy on age.

I was sad and cross about this decision.  I felt I still had a lot to offer and loved my job but there was nothing I could do about this.  Secondly, a family decision was made that Mom would enter a nursing home due to her progressive condition.  This decision left me with more free time.  Mom was an inspiration, and I inherited her great love of travel and adventure.  Thank you, Mom.

With this travel bug I also had a wish to live abroad for a while.  This would give me the opportunity to live in a different culture and have new experiences.  I decided I would do a Google search to see what was out there for people of my age to be able to work abroad.  I came across Camp Leaders who place staff in American summer sleep away camps.

I was interested and liked what I found out about camps.  I contacted Camp Leaders and had discussions with them.  I was delighted when they told me I was a suitable candidate for camp work.

I made a formal application and Clearwater Camp in Wisconsin contacted me, interviewed me and offered me a summer position.  I was thrilled to accept and felt valued again. I was looking forward to this new experience but also terrified.  I felt the visa process was long and laborious but with perseverance I completed it as the visa is the only way to be able to work and spend 3 months in the USA.  The staffs at the US Embassy were courteous and respectful.

How were you able to share your Irish culture with your fellow counselors and campers?

I found a great mix of American and International staff employed to work in camps for the summer on J-1 visas.  At Clearwater we had Mexican, Hungarian, Polish, British, Irish, Spanish and German staff as well as American.  A big range of cultures living together for 9 weeks.  I was asked a lot about Ireland, our culture, language, the ocean and the countryside, food, music (U2), transport, and national sport.  I am always very happy to talk about my home country. My accent was loved by all and when I was out and about others would always ask where I was from.  Most people spoke about having Irish heritage and some had visited Ireland.

It was the same with the campers.  Sometimes I drew a map to show the younger campers where I lived in relation to the USA.  I taught basic Irish dancing to campers in class.  A lot of the campers (all girls) had taken Irish dance lessons.

I was interested in learning about the countries the others came from too.  We would Google pictures and show each other different aspects of our home countries.  I found the girls from Mexico were very interested in Ireland and Europe and we shared a lot about our countries sparking an interest in some indicating they would be interested in visiting.  To date I have had 1 Mexican, and 3 Americans visit Ireland.  I have also been to Hungary and Mexico to visit friends I made.  A huge sharing of and a deep respect for all cultures happened.

What do you think the value of camp is for children and for counsellors?

Clearwater camp is mainly an outdoors activity camp with a lot of water sport. It’s a sleep away camp for girls from 8 to 16 years old.  I must admit I was surprised at first at the idea of 8- to 10-year-olds sleeping away from home for 3.5 weeks.  Clearwater is a no technology camp, no phones, radios, televisions. The only direct communication between the campers and parents or guardians is by letter.

As I settled into camp life I noticed how well most of the campers knew each other from previous years and adapted to their routine easily.  Most campers come year after year, and it is an American tradition to send children to camp.

We in Ireland send our children to Irish language camp for 2-3 weeks.  The difference being Irish children can phone and talk to family on a daily basis, if they want.

There is such a range of activities at camp that all campers have at least one activity they enjoy.  It is rewarding to watch campers learn new skills on a daily basis and know these are skills that will enrich their lives going forward.  All campers go away on overnight trips to the wilderness and are taught survival skills.  As a staff member I also gained new skills. I learnt (sic) the difference between canoeing and kayaking and taught these classes.  I also did archery for the first time in 2022 and loved it.  When I returned home I joined the local archery club.

On an emotional level being at camp helped me to grow in confidence, become more aware that I could stand on my own 2 feet in a foreign country.  I made great friends from around the world but ultimately, I was on my own and I did ok.

Please explain how a J-1 visa exchange program is like a rite of passage for the Irish.

A huge number of Irish University students avail of a J-1 visa and see it as a rite of passage.  At times it may be a student’s first time to travel. It helps students become more independent, manage their money, see and experience different cultures.  The students work in all different areas, restaurants, bars, theme parks, etc. Some work in summer camps.

There are several different categories of J-1s.  No one was more surprised than me when I saw I was granted a J-1. I believed only students got J-1s.  My children got J-1s and I was always somewhat envious when seeing them off, that I never did it.  Here I was at 66, in 2022 with a J-1 visa. Happy days.

I would love to see a lot more people my age applying for a J-1.

How have your two summers of being a camp counsellor changed you?

This opportunity opened up a whole new life to me.  I had 2 wonderful summers working at Clearwater Camp in Wisconsin.

The first summer, I arrived totally unprepared for the experience.  I thought I was going to a camp like in the film, “Dirty Dancing.”

I was greeted so warmly by the leadership team of Clearwater that I felt at home immediately.  It was daunting meeting all the staff members and remembering all their names. We were a huge mix of nationalities and cultures which became a wonderful experience.  We bonded well and formed good friendships.  These friendships still continue today.

I was the oldest staff member at camp and as such I found some of the international staff coming to me when they had a difficulty or a stress over something.  This allowed me to use the skills and training I had acquired over the last decade in my working life.

The first summer I learnt to live with and manage my homesickness, adjust to a new environment and way of life and abide by a new set of rules.  I pushed myself outside my comfort zone and I feel so energised and educated by my experience.

I learnt more about myself, my resilience and coping skills rather than the experience changing me. I had a difficult period in my life in 2018/19 and I developed PTSD.  I worked hard to recover and my successful experience at Camp showed me I had recovered as well as I could to this point in my life.

From my 2 great summers on a J1 visa I would encourage anyone, whatever age to look at doing something outside their comfort zone.  There is such a big world out there to explore and so many amazing people to meet.

For people of retiring age who feel they still have something to offer I encourage and urge you to take a leap of faith and GO DO IT.

Categories: J-1 Visa, Program Spotlight

About Rebecca Pasini

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange

Rebecca Pasini

Rebecca A. Pasini joined the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchanges in July 2023. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister - Counselor, Ms. Pasini has been an American diplomat since 1997.

Ms. Pasini previously served as the Director of Public and Congressional Affairs in the Bureau of Consular Affairs from 2021-2023. Other Washington assignments have included positions in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, the Office of Foreign Missions, and as a liaison to the Department of Homeland Security. She has also completed multiple overseas tours, including as Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs in Islamabad, Pakistan, and as the Consular Chief in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Belfast, Northern Ireland. Other tours included Mexico City and Kuwait.

A Maryland native, Ms. Pasini has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, a master’s degree in National Security and Resource Strategy from the Eisenhower School, National Defense University, and an undergraduate degree from Mary Washington College.