BUNAC: The Work in Ireland and Britain Combination Program
Important note: The program that existed at the time of this writing (4/2008) has been changed to an internship program in the U.K.
Have Degree, Will Travel
I graduated from Indiana University in the spring of 2003 with no idea of what to do next.
“I want to travel,” I told my guidance counselor, “but I don’t have much money.”
“Have you heard of BUNAC?” she asked.
With her casual suggestion, the course of my life completely transformed. Within one month, I had successfully applied for BUNAC’s combination Work in Ireland/Work in Britain program and waited anxiously for September, largely unsure about what to expect.
“But what are you going to do there?” My relatives asked. “You don’t know anyone, you don’t have a place to live, and you don’t have a job!”
“So you’re just going to go,” said my friends, “and figure it out when you get there?”
“That’s the plan,” I said, with a confidence that I hoped masked my anxiety.
A Novice Traveler
The first thing I learned is that I should have brought a backpack, not a huge rolling suitcase. My enormous luggage, carefully selected in an Indianapolis Sears, was not at all suited to Dublin’s cobbled side streets. Yes, it could hold seven useless pairs of shoes, but it was swiftly defeated by cobblestones.
I spent my first night in the Kinlay House Hostel with my purse under my pillow and my arm curled over my laptop, convinced that everyone I met was a potential thief. On my second night, the girl on the bottom bunk was robbed by a teenager from Dublin who was also staying in the room. He was caught by the Gardaí (the Irish police), who literally dragged him back by the ear, where he was forced to apologize to the rest of us for giving Ireland a bad name.
On my third day, after my Work in Ireland orientation session, I realized I was not limited to Dublin, and bought a bus ticket to Galway. I met Gina, another American BUNACer, in the Sleepzone hostel, and within a few days we found a flat share through the local paper, the Galway Advertiser.
Soon we were sharing a large room in a three-bedroom city center flat with two young Irish people. Finding a job, however, didn’t come so easily. For two weeks, my money dwindled as I walked the streets of Galway, distributing CVs to each and every shop. I never got a call back, because I didn’t have a mobile phone, and naively believed that employers would contact me via email. Finally, I walked into Mocha Beans, a coffee shop on Edward Square, asked to speak directly to a manager, and was immediately granted a face-to-face interview.
I worked at Mocha Beans for the next several months, making coffee, making friends, and learning about Irish culture. I earned €6.35 per hour, plus got an equal share of tips, which came to about €15 per week. On my days off, I went sightseeing; Ireland is a small country, and easily accessible by local bus services. I kissed the Blarney stone, drove around the Ring of Kerry, climbed the Giant’s Causeway, and enjoyed fresh Guinness along the way. My full-time work schedule was reasonably flexible, which was extremely helpful when it came to taking short breaks.
Transition to London
The primary condition of my combined Ireland/Britain visa was that I had to be in the UK by the time Big Ben struck midnight on December 31st, because after that date I would lose my student status and invalidate my work permit. After a brief stopover in Milan to visit a friend, I emerged from the Piccadilly line into gray, drizzly London, and instantly fell in love.
At first, it was a one-sided infatuation. I loved London; the architecture, the buzz of the city, even the unreliable public transportation, but London didn’t love me back. The exchange rates did not favor the US dollar or the euro, the grotty flats were expensive, and there were thousands of other working holiday makers going for the same jobs that I was. Fortunately, the BUNAC office in Farringdon was a huge help, with a comprehensive orientation session, exclusive job board, and extensive flat listings.
I was standing in the offices, jotting down phone numbers of flat shares (one of my first orders of business had been to buy a phone), when a tall blonde girl tapped me on the shoulder.
“Are you looking for a place to live?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Paige, from Oregon, had been in London for approximately two weeks, and she had landed a job as a shop assistant on Bond Street during her second day. The downside was that she had been working nearly every day since, and had no time to look for a place to live. She had requested the day off to find accommodation, and had lined up three viewings. We quickly decided to be flat mates, which happily worked out – trust your instincts when choosing someone to live with, but be careful.
Signing the Lease
We decided on a studio apartment in Notting Hill, enticed by the trendy location, new furnishings, and tiny balcony. We shared toilets and showers with the three other rooms on our floor, and there were no laundry facilities, which meant taking our dirty clothes to the Laundromat down the road. Our landlord, Fabio, promised to get us a TV and an extra wardrobe, and we bought a hot plate to do all of our cooking on. We quickly adapted to cooking without a stove or a microwave, which wasn’t actually as difficult as it might seem.
We signed a six-month lease and forked over a month’s rent in advance, plus one month’s deposit – a total of £1500. Combined, we paid roughly £750 per month (£375 each) for the one-room flat, including all utilities (water, gas, electricity, council tax). This is not always the case; you may have to pay your utilities separately, so be aware of this before you sign on the dotted line. We were lucky; Fabio came through on his promises, and we got our full deposit back when we moved out, though in retrospect, we should have been more cautious before signing so quickly.
Finding Work (Again)
Paige went straight back to work at Longchamps, an upscale leather goods store, and I began my job search once again. I signed with a recruitment agency, who warned me that mid-December was a quiet time, and I might have some trouble finding work. I continued to apply for jobs, and went on numerous weird interviews with people I couldn’t imagine working for. After an interview for a receptionist position at a health club, I got a call back.
“We have actually filled the receptionist position, but I’d like to put you forward as a membership advisor,” my interviewer told me.
That was how I found myself selling gym memberships for Fitness Exchange. The hours were long and the pay was low, but I did get free use of the facilities and a potential bonus if we hit our target. About a month into the job, as I stood in front of the McDonald’s at Liverpool Street Station, handing out flyers, I realized that this was not how I wanted to spend my time in London. The pressure to recruit new members was intense, and I found myself constantly broke and dreading the working week. I decided to quit, which turned out to be a good decision–this is your time to explore, don’t spend it doing something you hate.
Within days of handing in my notice, a friend told me about a vacancy at London South Bank University; I got an interview and was hired. Suddenly I was an administrative assistant in a cozy office, making £9.50 per hour instead of £6.00, and I even got paid holidays. The job, although not very challenging, was low on stress, so I was able to focus on planning trips around England.
Europe at Your Doorstep
Taking advantage of low-cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, I was able to fly to Venice and Salzburg. The earlier you book, the less you will pay – I booked a month in advance and went to Venice for £25 return. The UK’s train system is equally convenient, and I was able to visit Scotland and Wales as well. A good tip is to buy a Young Person’s Railcard (current cost £24), available for 16 – 25 year olds, and save 1/3rd on all train journeys.
At the beginning of June, Paige and I both finished our work contracts and set off for a five-week journey across Western Europe. I had saved enough money to fund most of the trip, but did have to take out a transcontinental parental loan to cover the rest of the expenses.
Europe offers a number of budget travel options to young travelers, ranging from trains, planes, ferries and buses. We chose to travel from Greece to Spain via Busabout, a hop-on-hop-off bus service. It ended up being an excellent choice, as it offered flexibility and was a great way to meet other, like-minded people. When the trip wrapped up, we flew from Madrid back to London, and from there, I caught my flight back to Chicago.
I stared out the window and cried as the plane took off, much to the dismay of the nervous man sitting next to me. I already missed everything – London’s double decker buses, rocky Mediterranean beaches, and Ireland’s cobbled streets. In ten short months, I had gained independence, courage, and confidence. It hadn’t been easy, but every struggle had paid off with irreplaceable rewards, and I’d recommend a BUNAC adventure to anyone who is considering it.