Rachel Bearden: UCA in Austria

No Kangaroos In Austria

UCA in Austria is an impactful opportunity wrapped in a faculty-led study abroad experience during the summer. Students from the Health Science majors tend to participate; however, as an explorative psychology major, I decided that getting involved in the physical health field and hearing about addiction studies from Dr. Lisa Ray would be a worthy addition to my summer. Rather than formal classes held daily in the Austro-American Institute for Education (a haven for free internet, tap water, and travel information for students), we held informal, on-the-go classes in a variety of settings around the city. One of these classes was a guided, historical tour led by an old friend of our faculty leader, Dr. Demers. However, there were also impromptu classes developed from unintentional situations in which we get lost in the city at night and tried to communicate with mainly German speakers to locate our house frau. Out of the five students who embarked on this Austrian journey, none of us spoke enough German to effectively communicate.

Five students for a faculty-led program doesn’t sound like enough to keep the trip going, and it wasn’t enough if the program had been inflexible. But we learned to adapt by eliminating the larger, more expensive trips and seeing the world through a local’s eyes rather than a tourist’s. And this was the best way to learn. Despite language barriers, I made several kids smile, whether through throwing them in the backyard pool, handing them a piece of paper and pen to overcome boredom on public transportation, or pretending to douse myself in perfume as they watched their Mutter shop. In Vienna (Austria), Zagreb (Croatia), and Ostrava (Czech), I experienced the endorphin boost of helping struggling elders on and off public transportation. I received a personal tour of the city of Ostrava by Matthew, a student who will be attending UCA in the Spring of 2020. Two young men from Michigan recognized me from my ROTC bag on different days. This serendipitous meeting resulted in several days in which Dr. Demers and I excitedly showed off favorite spots around Vienna to the two Michiganians.

All these connections I formed, whether permanently or just for that one, delicate moment, matter. Each city contained unique moments. A tour through the salt mine in Hallstatt was the coolest tour I’ve been on in my life, for reasons which I shan’t spoil in a blogpost. Riding a bike around Salzburg’s city and greenery refreshed my soul. In the city of Dorfgastein, a ride up a ski lift into the tip of earth’s atmosphere was not as cold to my bare and unprepared legs I had imagined; though sledding down a short incline on my cheap raincoat was a chilly decision. Ordering an abundance of meals from my favorite restaurant in Ostrava was likely not a wise choice; however, the justification was that it was from a healthy superfood joint. I’ll never forget getting a basket full of Croatian peaches for what equals 1 U.S. dollar and distributing more than half to those who were homeless and begging.

The program itself consisted of a diverse curriculum throughout three weeks. This included learning how to navigate Vienna’s transportation, tours of the city and museums, performing community service, and admiring castles. Touring the United Nations headquarters in Vienna was informative and inspirational. A lady named Nina, who was homeless, directed us around the city and shared the hope of the eradication of homelessness in Austria. Touring Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination/concentration camps and taking day trips to nearby cities were also vastly educational. Each of these places and events came with a unique story I will forever love to share with those wide-eyed in the wonder of the traveling life.

The trip itself inspired me to travel even more. It gave me the confidence to explore countries where English is not so prevalent, the strength to work out issues with plans (#faultytransportation) or people, and the hope in the humanity around us. Seeing hope in humanity would seem rather implausible considering I witnessed an abundance of Holocaust history, but the past doesn’t define us; it is how we react to it that shapes our future. Living in Vienna has taught me that a future abroad through a career or personal connections is one where I need to be.