As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Lehigh University’s international students continue to share their stories from a one-of-a-kind educational experience. Lehigh’s international cohort remains steady in its mission to bring new culture, language and values to South Bethlehem.

Aula Al Balad, a former master's student, hails from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Al Balad came to Lehigh as a Fulbright scholar to study instructional technology in the College of Education. He found out about Lehigh through other Indonesian students, and was intrigued by the fact that Lehigh is the sixth university in the world recognized as an NGO by the United Nations.

“What made me be interested in Lehigh was the program was really amazing. It met my expectations and fulfilled my desire,” Al Balad says. He pointed to how he still wanted to be involved in research activities and clubs and organizations. Lehigh fit this vision.

While at Lehigh, Al Balad formed a relationship with Bill Hunter, the director of fellowship advising and UN programs at Lehigh’s Office of International Affairs. Hunter came to Lehigh in May of 1999 to get a taste of working in higher education. He hasn’t left since. Hunter’s primary role for the Office of International Affairs is managing the partnership between Lehigh and the United Nations. Beyond working with the UN, Hunter directs the Office of Fellowship Advising, helping students achieve scholarships on an international scale. Hunter loves how his job enables him to connect with different cultures and learn about people from all over the world. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented him from having those face to face connections with students.

“I’m a people person,” he says. “Human contact and human connection is one of the reasons I got into this field as an educator. My goal is not to get to know you through this box in front of my desk. I want to sit down and have a coffee with you or have dinner with you and understand more about you and your country and your culture and your background.”

Hunter does believe, however, that technology has enabled more conversations with more people around the world.

Hunter and Al Balad first met at the Lehigh Valley International Airport. Hunter came to the airport and held up a paper sign that read: “Welcome home, Aula.” While Hunter does this with every student he greets, it was particularly special to Aula. “That moment is really one of the unforgettable moments of my life because I never expected that Lehigh would be so welcoming and warm, and that was amazing.”

As the year went on, Hunter’s and Al Balad’s relationship grew. Aula would frequently be in Hunter’s office, and the two enjoyed several trips to the United Nations together. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Al Balad was forced to return home to Indonesia. Like most other people, it was not the educational experience he expected. 

Hunter and Al Balad remained connected. Al Balad was back home in Indonesia and, despite the pandemic, followed through with his wedding (on a much smaller scale, of course). The night before the wedding Hunter received a message from Al Balad asking him to attend his wedding via Zoom. “I don’t care what I had planned, I was going. I would not miss that,” says Hunter. It didn’t matter to him that the wedding was late at night or that he didn’t speak a word of Al Balad’s native language, Hunter was honored to be included in one of the happiest days of Al Balad’s life. Although in Pennsylvania, Hunter was given the privilege of being in the mosque with Al Balad and his family thanks to Zoom.

Al Balad’s wedding would have had over 2,000 people in attendance, but the pandemic derailed his initial vision. He decided to include a Zoom feature at his wedding ceremony to include friends from all over the world. Hunter normally would not have been in attendance at all, but the use of Zoom allowed him to participate in a Al Balad’s wedding over 9,000 miles away.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped much of our typical lives, so good news is something we all need these days. Hunter and Al Balad’s story of forming a relationship in Bethlehem to being part of a wedding in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, is a heartening tale of friendship. The pandemic certainly pulled people apart, but technology let people stay together. As COVID-19 remains active across the country and the world, we must remind ourselves that we have the means to stay connected and united, no matter what the distance is.