Lee Iacocca, ‘45, was a philanthropist and entrepreneur best known for his leadership in the Ford Motor Company and status as a large benefactor to Lehigh University.
Although Iacocca passed away at 94 years old in July 2019, his name and legacy remain on campus through intensive intercultural learning programs for a range of ages.
He earned a bachelor of science in industrial engineering from Lehigh, then completed his master’s in engineering at Princeton University.
On campus, Iacocca was an active member of the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi, and the Theta Chi fraternity. He also was a writer and editor for The Brown & White.
Upon graduation, Iacocca worked as an engineer at Ford where he helped to develop the Ford Mustang, Continental Mark III and Ford Pinto cars.
Much later, after all this work, Iacocca partnered with Lehigh in 1988 to establish the Iacocca Institute “to help prepare the next generation of leaders to thrive in a global economy,” according to the institute’s webpage.
“(Iacocca) really cared about the development of global leaders,” Scott Koerwer, the executive director of the Iacocca Institute, said. “That was not just something he believed in, but it was a passion that he participated in and invested in.”
In June 2021, according to Lehigh News, the Iacocca Family Foundation donated $5 million to endow the Iacocca Institute and support global initiatives.
For current Lehigh students, the Iacocca International Internship Program enables students to work or do research overseas.
According to its website, the program provides a variety of internships abroad for students to gain practical work experience in a global context. In 2023, 46 students participated in internships in 17 different countries in programs ranging from sustainable development to real estate.
Carol Strange, the internship program director, said its two goals are to enhance students’ career readiness and develop their intercultural competency. All Lehigh students are eligible to apply.
The program is six to 10 weeks long during the summer and is mostly funded as students take on full work experiences during a summer abroad. The university doesn’t cover passport or visa fees, immunizations, optional excursions, or personal expenses. However, costs such as airfare, housing, local transportation, and most meals are included.
“We are trying to provide opportunities for students who may not have an opportunity otherwise,” Strange said.
To instate the internship program, Iacocca endowed Lehigh with a $10 million donation in 2012.
Strange said Iacocca, a first-generation student himself, wanted to provide access for Lehigh students to have global experiences.
“(Iacocca) believed that having global connections really helps people become better leaders when they have that deeper cultural understanding across the borders,” Strange said. “This program came from his background and amazing leadership.”
She said students often begin the program hoping to develop more technical skills but their experience digs deeper than that.
Renae Austin, ‘24, is a biology major at Lehigh and studied abroad in Chile in the summer of 2023 through the Iacocca International Internship Program.
Austin said she heard about the internship before but didn’t apply until her adviser recommended it.
“The poster mentioned that they support students who receive financial aid,” Austin said. “That was important for me because I receive high financial aid from Lehigh, and it makes it difficult for me to study abroad.”
The application process consisted of several steps, including an online application and a preparation phase that requires five sessions to learn about cultural competency and professional development outside of the U.S.
Once students are abroad, they stay in a homestay, which is a form of lodging where visitors can stay with abroad residents who are willing to share their living space.
Austin said it was difficult at first to acclimate to her new environment because of cultural differences, but through the IES Abroad program she was using in Chile, she was able to meet more students from all over the U.S. who related to her.
“That made me feel like I had a home away from home,” Austin said. “That helped create my workspace, my friend space, it made my experience solid.”
Austin said meeting new people, whether they were from Chile, Lehigh or other states in the U.S., gave her perspective on how to maximize her opportunities.
It was a learning experience, Austin said, where she was able to take her strengths and use them when it came to leadership and collaboration but also enhance her intercultural fluency skills.
“I’ve learned to be more empathetic, to be more understanding in these settings,” Austin said. “Instead of coming from a biased perspective, (I) understand the societal, socio-economic issues that are going on.”
For high school students, the Iacocca Global Entrepreneurship Intensive within the institute offers an immersive, hands-on, four-week program during the summer.
Carrie Duncan, the intensive program director, said students participate in workshops, take on experiential and hands-on learning tasks, and present their work at pitch competitions during the program.
According to Duncan, the 2022 program consisted of high school students from 13 different countries.
Duncan said this challenging program with a wide variety of students is reflective of Iacocca’s legacy.
“The inspiration that Iacocca (had) and his out-of-the-box thinking, his way of thinking of ideas that nobody else had at his time, is really at the heart of what we want our students to do,” Duncan said.
Bringing each corner of the world together to collaborate, Duncan said, fulfills one of the institute’s ultimate goals — to have Lehigh be a truly global campus.
For college students and graduates, the Iacocca Institute also offers The Global Village Experience, designed for young professionals worldwide to enhance their leadership skills. It has now been at Lehigh for over two decades.
The Global Village Experience offers participants the opportunity to work on valuable skills to take outside of the classroom, like project management and consulting. The program consists of workshops and interactive sessions designed to strengthen leadership skills, networking and multicultural awareness, and personal development, according to the program’s website.
Koerwer said The Global Village Experience currently has 2,500 college undergraduates and graduates from over 140 countries around the world.
He said Iacocca was an early design thinker and real visionary, who was not too far removed from Lehigh’s current strategic plan campaign, the future makers.
“As part of the Office of International Affairs, we want to ensure that every Lehigh student can have access to an international experience,” Koerwer said. “The Iacocca Institute in particular is committed to helping all Lehigh learners, all students and all alumni on that path to becoming a leader.”