The gift had to standout.
Because President John Simon’s trip to China was only six weeks away, Sophia Eschenbach-Smith, ’20, stood at the head of the design table, sketches in hand. Within a few short weeks, Eschenbach-Smith transformed her ideas into wooden plaques that were presented as a gift from the university.
In November 2018, Simon paid a visit to leaders of some of China’s top universities, including the Chinese vice minister of education and the president of Peking University in Beijing. In China, it is customary to present a gift to your hosts. When brainstorming gift ideas, Cheryl Ann Matherly, the vice president and vice provost for International Affairs, knew just who to ask — the Lehigh South Mountain Makers.
Founded in 2012, South Mountain Makers is a group of innovative students of all majors that work to create products.
Eschenbach-Smith, an art and design student and one of the makers, quickly took on the project along with eight other passionate designers. Their task was to turn 300-year-old wood from trees that fell on Lehigh’s campus into a memorable gift for Chinese university leaders.
When Eschenbach-Smith’s designs were chosen for the plaque, she was honored.
“It felt so cool. I didn’t think that the plaque was going to be chosen,” Eschenbach-Smith said. “I was super excited because to have art recognized is incredible, and at Lehigh, it doesn’t seem like students are exposed to art.”
Not only is gift-giving an honorable tradition in China, it was also an opportunity to transform the idea of Lehigh into a tangible vision for international partners.
When Simon delivered the gift, he said he was excited to hand them a gift with meaning.
“It’s easy to exchange a gift that is standard,” Simon said. “What I liked about the plaques was that a student made it, so it has an emotional connection and shows what the place is about, which is very substantial.”
This was not Eschenbach-Smith’s first time working on designs. Since she transferred to Lehigh in 2017, Eschenbach-Smith has proven to be a driven and reliable leader.
Brian Slocum, manager of Wilbur Powerhouse and a director of South Mountain Makers, said Eschenbach-Smith continually plays a critical role in the planning and execution of projects, and when it came time to brainstorm ideas to design the plaques, she did not disappoint.
“She’s never shy,” Slocum said. “We’re a student team, so I prompt them and then the students essentially are the ones that take over. She thinks differently than a lot of students at Lehigh, and she can put her money where her mouth is with good design and execution of that design.”
Simon agreed that there aren’t many students quite like Eschenbach-Smith.
“I don’t think it’s everyday that a student would design and produce something like that,” Simon said. “I think it’s unusual to find someone like her. Once she heard of the opportunity she really wanted to do it.”
Upon arrival in South Bethlehem, she quickly immersed herself in the art and design departments.
While Eschebach-Smith has formed close relationships with these departments, she said she hopes that art will start to have a bigger presence on campus.
“I like the small size of the department. I’m on a first-name basis with a lot of my professors, but I do wish that we were more recognized and integrated into other student life,” Eschenbach-Smith said.
South Mountain Makers is one way that work from art and design students can be recognized, and it uses Lehigh’s history to inspire creations.
“I was honored when Cheryl (Ann Matherly) asked us,” Slocum said. “What’s the alternative? They would order a product in China? The students really responded to that. They really felt the level of importance of the things that they were doing.”
This wasn’t the first time that South Mountain Makers honored Lehigh through its projects. They also created the Alumni Memorial Desk and conference tables in Williams Hall.
Each project is designed using wood that fell on Lehigh’s campus after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I saw the potential of the wood and was thinking of ways to get students involved in projects,” Slocum said. “That was when South Mountain Makers was born.”
And while this project was a great honor for Eschenbach-Smith and the rest of the team, they are not stopping here. They are working on furniture for the office of Stephen DeWeerth, the dean of the college of engineering.
As for Eschenbach-Smith, she said she plans to carry what she has learned in her time here at Lehigh in her future career, wherever her art and creative eyes take her.
“Ideally, I would really love to be a part of a design firm that focuses on furniture or product design,” Eschebach-Smith said. “If I’m really dreaming big, I would want to own my own furniture line.”
No matter where the future takes her, Eschenbach-Smith’s work has earned her the respect from many people.
Now displayed in the office of university leaders in China, Eschenbach-Smith’s work embodies what it means to be a Lehigh student.
“I think the opportunity to explain what it was gave me the ability to get into the discussion of what Lehigh means to people,” Simon said. “Lehigh students like to create things. It gave me the opportunity to show what I think is a characteristic of many students here. She made it meaningful.”