Cheers rang out in the newly revamped hall of the old municipal buildings in Wexford town as Georgia Southern University - the first ever American public university to open an outreach learning centre in Ireland - was officially opened during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Wednesday.
Officially called Georgia Southern Global Hub - Ireland, the campus was christened the more manageable Georgia Southern Wexford by President of Georgia Southern University Dr Kyle Marrero. Located on Spawell Road, the campus can accommodate up to 100 students from a variety of academic disciplines, beginning this spring. The building directly across from the campus will provide accommodation for students, while plans are being progressed to convert the old convent on Bride Street which was vacated by the Adoration Sisters, into student accommodation.
Liz Hore from Wexford County Council welcomed faculty heads from Georgia State and officials, including An Tánaiste Simon Coveney at the event.
Speaking in front of a 100-strong crowd at the event Mr Coveney said: 'This campus is an exciting new addition to third-level education in Ireland as Georgia Southern University is the first public university in the US to open a facility here in Ireland.
'I am delighted to be here to celebrate this unique connection between Wexford and Savannah, Georgia. Today's event and the official opening of this campus showcases the ambition and vision of the educators at Georgia Southern as they work in partnership with Wexford County Council.'
Mr Coveney said: 'The number of Irish people in Savannah from Wexford is almost unhealthy.'
He said by opening the new campus in Wexford both Wexford and Savannah have established a footprint which he believes will grow over the coming years. Mr Coveney welcomed the efforts of Wexford County Council to develop student accommodation in Wexford town. 'Students will be travelling and coming here to learn and to benefit from opportunities that Wexford has to offer, including work experience. This is new ground that we are breaking here. This is a historic building in the heart of Wexford.'
He said Wexford County Council has invested significant public money in upgrading the building - believed to be over €600,000 - adding that the university is leasing the premises back over a decade. 'This will work well for everybody. This may well become a template for other universities in the US and in building an international hub in Ireland based on research and education.'
He said there are many more colleges across Georgia state (26 in total), who will have an opportunity now to send students to Wexford as the project grows over the coming years.
'This is a really good news story on every level. I am sure the risk you have decided to take in Co Wexford will bear fruit and prove successful here in Wexford.'
Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli spoke of how Wexford people: Rossiters, Kehoes, Waters moved to Savannah 170 years ago, adding that today 56 per cent of Irish Savannah residents can claim they are Wexford descendents. 'That linkage was almost lost but it has been rediscovered and all of these linkages are stemming from that.'
President of Georgia Southern University Dr Kyle Marrero praised the new campus, adding: 'We have over 26,000 students, 141 programs and three foreign campuses. Now we have a fourth.'
He praised Director of Georgia Southern's Center for Irish Research and Teaching Howard Keeley for his research on Wexford and for progressing the project with officials from Wexford County Council. 'There are quite a few Georgia State faculty heads here which is testament to the commitment we have made to Wexford. This has been a journey and I am a latecomer to it but I can promise you that I am all in.'
He outlined Georgia Southern's strategic plan which includes developing global citizens. 'It's opportunities like this that will help the success of that plan. This represents a rekindling of a bond that goes back more than 150 years ago. People had a dream about creating a better life which brought our two cities together.'
Dr Marrero predicted a strong economic partnership between Wexford and Savannah.
Wexford County Council CEO Tom Enright said: 'Today's event symbolises the ambition and vision of Georgia Southern University to provide its students with an international learning experience and Wexford is embracing the opportunity to represent Ireland as part of the university's expansion programme for third level. This is one of the most exciting initiatives of international cross-collaboration that we as, a local authority, have embarked on. We are very proud to be part of this initiative.'
He thanked everyone involved in the project, including Roger Doyle Building & Carpentry. 'The construction work project carries out over the past year has transformed this wonderful building into a 21st century university of excellence for university students. We believe this is another symbol of the ambition of Georgia State. I look forward to our continued working with Georgia Southern University to develop further our linkages which can yield real benefits from economic, social and cultural programmes and to maximise the future potential of the building. This International Learning Hub will be a visible form of Georgia Southern University's physical presence in Wexford and will open up new opportunities for exchange and collaboration between Wexford, Ireland and Georgia Southern University.'
Mr Enright outlined the extraordinary success of Savannah city as a tourism destination. 'Savannah has a population similar to Co Wexford and yet has 14m visitors a year. We hope we can benefit a little bit from that.'
He said delegations from Co Wexford have travelled to Savannah which has helped to cement the relationship between both places. 'Howard Keeley has been the catalyst and I an delighted to see his parents here with him today. Your boy has done good!'
He thanked Walter O'Leary for his work at WIT and all of the team at Wexford County Council. 'We started out on this journey together a few years ago. Sometimes we were walking a step ahead and sometimes a step behind but today we both march confidently ahead side by side as one towards a better future for both our communities.'
Welcoming the university's faculty heads and management to Wexford, Chairman of Wexford County Council Cllr Michael Sheehan said: 'We are delighted to see a complete realisation of the strategic vision of Wexford County Council and Georgia Southern University here in Wexford today. This project will put Wexford on the map globally as a centre of innovation and excellence and it also demonstrates how universities across the world have international networks that will enhance the research and third facilities of County Wexford. I would like to commend all of the partners on the completion and establishment of this campus in such a short period of time.'
He said Wexford County Council are extremely proud to form a part of the significant investment transforming the heritage building into a 21st-century university facility for international students.
'There is already an academic vitality here at Georgia Southern Global Hub - Ireland. We know that its modern, well-equipped facilities will provide students from across the US and beyond life- and career-enhancing opportunities here in Wexford. We look forward to offering all of the students a warm Wexford welcome this spring.'
He extended a warm welcome to University System of Georgia Regent Don Waters and all of the Savannah delegation.
'This building which was constructed in 1812 was originally a jail, then from the 1920s until 2017, the lecture theatre was used as the old Courthouse and of course the wider campus housed the former local authority offices of the county council. The redevelopment of this historical building and the establishment of an international learning hub here cements our relationship both economically, socially and culturally between our two communities.'
Don Waters said: 'This is really a dream come true for a lot of people. I extend greetings from the entire state of Georgia, its people and our Governor Brian Kemp.'
He said the Wexford campus is a tremendous opportunity for the University System of Georgia. 'It's an emotional connection because I can tell you if you walk the streets in Savannah you would come face to face with a Rossiter, Corish and a Waters. This is a real, genuine connection to Ireland.'
Pointing to the stained glass Exemplar Hibernia glass panel crest above him, Mr Waters said its message of a model for Ireland, he said the Wexford campus will reflect the tenets of the emblem.
'What we are doing here will be long regarded as a model for educational and economic development for Ireland and Georgia and for area far beyond for many years.'
Ribbons was officially cut inside and outside of the building by Mr Coveney, Deputy Kehoe, Cllr. Michael Sheehan, Mr Enright, Dr Keeley and Dr Marrero.