Bridging Worlds: Jessica Sharkey's BridgeUSA Experience

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Before coming to America, Jessica Sharkey had never heard of Nebraska. A native of Donegal, Ireland, Jessica arrived in the United States with a plan to leverage her major in art history as a BridgeUSA intern at the Robert Henri Museum and Art Gallery.

Not only did she do an excellent job in her internship, but Jessica was a remarkable example of how impactful the BridgeUSA program can be. As noted by the Museum’s Executive Director, Peter Osborne, “The BridgeUSA program is a great way to put a face with a country. In our case, Jess saw the face of America through her experience in Cozad, Nebraska, and equally, Cozad had the privilege of seeing the face of Ireland, that maybe they’d never seen before, through Jess.”  

As a senior at Trinity College Dublin, Jessica applied for an internship through BridgeUSA, a non-immigrant J-1 visa exchange program designed by the Department of State to increase mutual understanding through several distinctive programs. By bringing college and high school students, young professionals, and recent graduates to the U.S., the BridgeUSA program enables participants to gain hands-on experience, improve language and cultural skills, and build professional networks.

With CIEE as her J-1 visa sponsor, Jessica arrived in Cozad in June 2023. She settled into her new, rural town (population of 3,890) and prepared to start her internship at the gallery.

Jessica admits that before her arrival, she held some preconceived notions about Americans. Initially, everything reminded her of their differences – from reading the weather reports (and having to convert from Fahrenheit to her native Celsius) to gawking at the grocery store's array of potato chip flavors.

But the Cozad community rallied around her, showering her with welcome gestures, including an invitation to join their Fourth of July celebrations, attending baseball games together, providing her with transportation around town, and more. “It was like being in a film. I felt so special to be a part of it,” she recalled. 

While working at the museum, Jessica engaged with locals and tourists visiting from across the country. She cherished the opportunity to share Irish words with museum visitors, as Irish is her home country's official but rarely spoken language. 

In return, visitors enlightened her about the vastness of the U.S., detailing their journeys from distant parts of the U.S. This contrasted sharply with Jessica's experience in Ireland, where distances between cities are much shorter. 

Whether she was welcoming guests at the reception desk, crafting exhibits (three of which remain on display today!), or collaborating with framing experts, Jessica frequently shared her story and Irish culture with everyday Americans, and in turn gained firsthand insights into the variety of American beliefs and experiences.

However, she was surprised by the casual nature of inquiries from museum guests about "The Troubles," which is a sensitive topic regarding the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Altogether, Jessica found solace in the open discussions. She gained a new perspective on how Ireland and Northern Ireland are perceived internationally. She remarked, "You learn that everyone is really the same… just a bit different." 

Jessica's journey epitomizes the educational and cultural exchange that defines the BridgeUSA program and exemplifies mutual understanding as a crucial part of public diplomacy. From knowing nothing about Nebraska to forming enduring friendships and professional ties with Nebraskans, Jessica returned to Ireland with tales of the warmth, kindness, and hospitality. As for her career, Jessica’s BridgeUSA experience ignited her passion for Robert Henri's work and inspired her to pursue a PhD in Art History. She envisions conducting original research on Henri's time in Ireland and plans on returning to the Robert Henri Museum and Gallery as a Visiting Curator later this year.

About CIEE and BridgeUSA

CIEE is the largest designated BridgeUSA J-1 visa sponsor by the U.S. Department of State, facilitating countless international exchange programs and enabling cultural immersion experiences for students and professionals from around the globe.

BridgeUSA annually attracts around 300,000 individuals to the U.S. from 200 countries and territories. Participants bring diverse skills and perspectives to American workplaces and communities; promote cultural understanding and diplomacy by sharing their own cultures, traditions, and experiences; and contribute to the U.S. economy by generating economic activity.