Lehigh in Belgium Comes Full Circle

Bryan O'Connell and Jim Maskulka in Leuven, Belgium
Bryan O'Connell (left) and Professor Jim Maskulka (right) in Leuven, Belgium.

Twenty-six years ago, Bryan O’Connell ’92 was part of the first group of students to study abroad in the Lehigh in Belgium program. This summer, he had a chance to relive that experience with a new twist—sharing it with his daughter, Elle, a junior at Michigan State University.

Lehigh in Belgium focuses on marketing and the European Union—it’s located in Leuven, close to the EU capital of Brussels. When the program began in 1991, Europe was a continent in flux and the EU was still in its infancy.

“It was a very interesting time in 1991 when the Berlin Wall was coming down, the European currency was just under discussion, but hadn’t happened yet,” says O’Connell. “Studying about what was happening in Europe as we were there was fascinating.”

O’Connell majored in marketing with a heavy emphasis on finance. After 20 years of working at large retail corporations, he started Geckobrands in 2012, selling waterproof gear for outdoor enthusiasts. He says that his experience at Lehigh, including in Belgium, was the foundation of his career.

“I think being in a completely new environment, with new people and new experiences, is something that translates into your first job, which likely will be away from your campus, friends, and your hometown,” he says. “In Belgium, we travelled every weekend, and the independence and responsibility was a growth situation for all the students.”

Elle O’Connell agrees about the value of sharing new experiences with new people. A marketing major at Michigan State University, she found that many of the study abroad options at her school that focused on marketing were too familiar—in countries she’d been to or with classmates she saw every week. She heard about Lehigh in Belgium from a local friend who goes to Lehigh and arranged with the study abroad staff at both schools to sign up.

“I thought this was the perfect program for me, studying where my mom grew up, in a program my dad had attended 26 years ago and a country I had never been to, with my focus of marketing,” she says.

“My time in the Lehigh in Belgium program helped me develop a better understanding of global marketing. It contributed to my college experience by allowing me to meet people from a different university from all over. It was so fun to share with my dad how my experience went to see how it differed from his.”

Bryan joined Elle in Belgium for the last day of the program, but first, he reconnected with his old professor, Jim Maskulka, who led the program for both O’Connells. He and Maskulka talked about their 1991 trip, business strategy and professional experiences, and O’Connell shared some professional advice with the students. He’ll return to Lehigh to give a guest lecture this fall.

How does Maskulka, an associate professor of marketing, feel about running a program for 26 years and two generations?

“Many emotions here,” he says. “I am proud of the accomplishment (it looks easier to do than it actually is), humbled by the experience, fortunate to have been able to do this for such a long period of time, grateful for the opportunity 26 years ago and thankful that I am still able to direct a study abroad program.”