Brian Chege, '24, poses along Lehigh's Memorial Walkway. O'Gorman is at Lehigh for the semester from NUI Galway studying business information systems. (courtesy of Brian Chege)

The exchange student experience: Irish students abroad at Lehigh


For one of his first in-person classes of the semester, Ruairi O’Gorman, ‘24, had difficulty navigating Lehigh’s bus system to take him to the Mountaintop campus. He ended up missing the bus and walking to Mountaintop instead. The well-named location requires a long and entirely uphill walk.

For exchange students, almost every experience at Lehigh is new. This semester, there are eight exchange students studying at Lehigh. 

O’Gorman, Brian Chege, ‘24, and Orlaith Kennedy, a student intern, are three of Lehigh’s exchange students who all came from The National University of Ireland Galway. 

For their semester abroad, both O’Gorman and Chege are studying business information systems. 

Kennedy is a fourth-year student at NUI Galway and is now on a work placement exchange, doing research at a bioengineering lab on campus. 

Through the exchange partnership, O’Gorman was given a list of universities to choose from and selected Lehigh after learning about Bethlehem. Chege said he also chose Lehigh because of its location. 

For Kennedy, she said she was looking to gain international work experience, which Lehigh provided.

When international students arrive on campus, the Office of International Students and Scholars holds an orientation to acclimate them to Lehigh and U.S. culture. This semester’s orientation was held online. 

Amanda Connolly, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, said international students learn about public transportation, cultural differences in the U.S., immigration advisement and campus resources at the program. 

“We talk about culture shock and sort of the rollercoaster of getting used to being in a new place that might be very different from where you’re from,” Connolly said.

During the first few weeks of the semester, all three have had vastly different experiences than what they are used to back home in Ireland. 

O’Gorman said one of the biggest differences between his education experience in Ireland and being at Lehigh is the variety of subjects Lehigh offers. This semester, in addition to classes for business information systems, he is taking a sports journalism class, an architectural design module and drum lessons. 

Chege said he enjoys the intimate classroom settings that he has gotten at Lehigh so far. 

“I think there’s been a lot of extra feedback on assignments, which can be very rewarding,” Chege said. 

Kennedy said the research opportunities she has gained thus far is not something she would have gotten at NUI Galway this early in her career. 

“The lab experience has been really good and there’s no real opportunity for that at home, especially undergrad level,” Kennedy said. “I’m glad I’ve been exposed to it.” 

Coming to a new country and new school has come with some challenges but for O’Gorman and Chege, their roommates have been able to show them around, which has made the transition easier. 

“I’m still adjusting to cultural differences but I thought it was going to be worse than it is to be honest,” Kennedy said.

However, COVID-19 made the visa and travel process more difficult for both the exchange students and the coordinators at Lehigh.

“I think really the only thing for us that’s been constant is that thing keeps changing,” Connolly said. “Right now the U.S. embassies abroad are still really backlogged from COVID so they’re taking longer to get visa appointments. A number of our Irish exchange students actually had to request emergency visa appointments.”

For all three of the students, this was their first time in the U.S., resulting in a range of emotions before traveling. 

“Before the visa process, I can’t lie that it was one of the most stressful periods of my life,” O’Gorman said. “But after that it was plain sailing and I just got more and more excited rather than nervous. Then getting on the plane, it was probably the most excited I’ve been in my entire life.”

For each of the students, the hospitality of Lehigh and its community has also eased the transition. 

Earlier this semester, O’Gorman and Kennedy attended their first Lehigh basketball game at Stabler Arena. After the game finished, they both realized that the buses shuttling back down to campus had all left. Yet, a staff member from Stabler came to the rescue and drove both of them home.

“It was just the Bethlehem community making us feel welcomed,” O’Gorman said.

During the semester, exchange students have the opportunity to travel beyond Lehigh. 

Kennedy said she hopes to be able to experience and see as much of the U.S. as she can, including going to a Broadway show and traveling to Philadelphia and New York. 

Chege also hopes to travel during spring break. 

Lehigh has 12 active exchange partnerships with colleges and universities around the world. In addition to the students from Ireland, Connolly said Lehigh is hosting exchange students from Hong Kong, Germany, Ecuador and the United Arab Emirates this semester.

Katie Welsh Radande, director of the Study Abroad Office, said having exchange students at Lehigh brings more diverse ideas to campus. 

“One of the goals is that they’re interacting with students in the classroom and outside of the classroom and bringing a different perspective and sharing other world views,” Radande said. 

This semester was the first time in two years that Lehigh has been able to fully welcome back exchange students after a hiatus due to COVID-19. 

“I think the exchange students want to see everything,” Connolly said. “They want to go and explore and they want to visit other parts of the country. I am so appreciative of their curiosity and all of the things that they want to pack into the one semester that they’re here.”

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