Irish students killed on balcony were with cultural program

A woman leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of a balcony that collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Berkeley police said several people were killed and others injured after a balcony fell shortly before 1 a.m., near the University of California, Berkeley. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A woman leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of a balcony that collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Berkeley police said several people were killed and others injured after a balcony fell shortly before 1 a.m., near the University of California, Berkeley. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Five of the Irish college students who died when a fifth-floor balcony collapsed were part of a popular cultural exchange program allowing foreign students to work and travel in the United States.

The U.S. government’s J-1 Summer Work Travel program brings 100,000 college students to this country every year, with many finding jobs at resorts, summer camps and other attractions.

Here’s a look at the program:

WHAT IS IT?

The program – created under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 – allows foreign college students to spend up to four months living and working in the U.S. It was meant to foster cultural understanding and has become a booming, multimillion-dollar international business. Participation has grown from about 20,000 in 1996 to a peak of more than 150,000 in 2008.

WHO RUNS IT?

The State Department has 41 designated sponsors that help students arrange visas and find jobs and housing. Students pay thousands of dollars to participate in the program. The San Francisco Bay Area is especially popular with Irish students, many of whom work at Fisherman’s Wharf and other tourist sites.

HAVE THERE BEEN PROBLEMS?

A 2010 investigation by The Associated Press found that many students came to the U.S. only to learn the jobs they were promised didn’t exist. Some had to share beds in crowded houses or filthy apartments. Following the AP’s investigation, the State Department tightened its rules governing participating businesses.

IS THERE OVERSIGHT?

In the past, unscrupulous third-party brokers working for sponsors have taken advantage of students, cramming them into tiny, roach-infested apartments while charging exorbitant rent.

Sponsors now take a more active role with housing. They have to keep records on where the students are living and stay in contact with them during their four-month stay. There’s currently no requirement for sponsors to vet the housing for the program’s participants, said Susan Pittman, a spokesman for the State Department. Still, she insists the department monitors the program, adding that last year they made 717 unannounced visits to sponsors and employers.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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