Postcards from Abroad: UNO's Flagship Program Abroad in Innsbruck, Austria Allows Students To Give Back
Students, faculty and staff of the University of New Orleans flagship study abroad program -- the University of New Orleans Innsbruck International Summer School -- have enjoyed several opportunities to give back to the city that has been such a gracious host for nearly four decades.
Yet, it wasn't easy this summer to find a community project in this pristine city in the heart of the Alps: parks are immaculate, streets and houses sparkle like Austrian crystals and residents living on society's margins are well taken care of by the national social system.
Still, a local soup kitchen, named "Vinzibus" and founded by the local chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, was happy to accept some help.
One evening in July, instead of Tirolean dumplings or Gulasch stew, the homeless of Innsbruck tasted their first New Orleans jambalaya, complete with authentic Tony Chachere's spices brought over for just this occasion. The meal was prepared by 13 student "ambassadors" selected to represent the student body on this program, their university and their country.
"It was a very humbling experience to work with Vinzibus and to give back to others," said Alexandra Woodhams, a special education major at UNO. "It is up to us to continue to grow and foster the relationship between Innsbruck and New Orleans and to leave a lasting and positive impression on the people of Innsbruck during our stay here."
A Night of Service and Friendship
More than 270 students from 26 American universities are pursuing studies abroad this summer through the 2013 UNO-Innsbruck International Summer School. Joining the Americans are 40 students from the University of Innsbruck, UNO's longest-standing international partner.
This year, the two institutions celebrate the 30th anniversary of their successful and far-reaching partnership -- and the 38th year of the UNO Innsbruck International Summer School program. Today, 22 faculty members teach 42 courses in business, liberal arts and science and a staff of 12 manages a myriad of program details, student needs, parent concerns and faculty requests.
On July 15, all who study, teach and work in Innsbruck for six weeks every summer had yet another occasion to give back to their hosts.
Austria, among several other Central European countries, experienced earlier this summer devastating floods caused by days of heavy rainfall, which aggravated the already considerable snow melt after a particularly long and severe winter. In the province of Tirol, where Innsbruck is the capital, many people lost their homes and livelihoods.
Thus, at "Jambalaya Night," an annual event designed to feed all program participants on a long study night before mid-terms, representatives of the Austrian Red Cross gave a brief presentation and accepted donations for local victims of this recent catastrophe.
For many of the students and professors, the event was a welcome occasion to give back to the locals who, in 2005, raised funds for Katrina victims of their sister city, New Orleans.
"While we were preparing jambalaya, we discussed Hurricane Katrina and how it affected us all. I remember all the help that came after the storm," said student ambassador Michael Larey. "I am so happy that we can give a little back."
Larey, together with fellow ambassadors and program officials, happily presented the director of the local Red Cross chapter with the $500 in European bills collected during Jambalaya Night.
International Education, International Relations
Such service learning greatly complements the regular educational component of the Innsbruck program.
"Students studying in Innsbruck work in classes designed to illustrate the theme of the Summer School: comparative analysis of the United States and Europe," explained Robert Dupont, academic director of the UNO-Innsbruck International Summer School 2013.
"Classes investigate differences between the two continents in history, government policy and business practices."
Dupont takes pride that, by the end of the program, 25 class field trips and guest lectures will have been conducted, allowing each of the program's 270 students some personal contact with a local professional or an aspect of the local culture and history.
The program's diverse offering of classes allowed students to study many topics, ranging from the Holocaust, Italian Renaissance art, alpine geology and European fairy tales to international film, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and principles of marketing.
Students also took part in field trips that brought them to locations such as Salzburg, Munich, northern Italy, Alpine glaciers and important World War II sites, such as Dachau concentration camp and Hitler's Eagles' Nest. They attended guest lectures from experts in international trade, commerce, journalism and tourism.
Active cultural programming also took students hiking, biking, swimming in lakes and summer tobogganing down Alpine-lined peaks.
Moreover, students met local media, made radio appearances and got to know Austrian students in a "buddy" program.
Support from the University of Innsbruck is invaluable, UNO officials said.
"For many years, the UNO summer school has become a firm fixture in the University of Innsbruck's academic calendar and I consider it to be one of the pillars of the partnership," said Barbara Tasser, the university's official representative for international affairs.
"The opportunity for students from the University of Innsbruck to participate in the program is invaluable. On the one hand, they get the chance to refine their English language skills and, on the other hand, to interact with students from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures. For many of them, the summer school is a stepping stone for their decision to spend a semester or year abroad at UNO."
Tasser graciously invited the students from Ann Edwards' Food and Culture class to her home to learn how to make typical Austrian food.
"Curiosity is one of the most important capacities a traveler must have and I am convinced that UNO summer school students have a lot of it," said Tasser with a smile. "Otherwise they would never have accepted my invitation to cook Tyrolean style dumplings at my home and discuss Austrian traditional cuisine."
Summer of a Lifetime
A program of the size and nature of the Innsbruck Summer School can easily become an "island program," in which students never leave their comfort zone or circle of American friends.
"We do what we can to counteract this tendency," said Irene Ziegler, the program director who prepares and administers this program at UNO year-round. "A buddy program with local students, a variety of extracurricular activities (including hiking, bouldering, bike tours, cultural excursions, etc.), and, of course, the inclusion of University of Innsbruck students in all classes offer many opportunities for the American students to meet new people, learn new traditions, and possibly make life-long friends in a country not their own."
In program evaluations submitted by the students at the end of the Innsbruck program, the most often repeated phrase is "the summer of my life-time!" according to program officials.
"Studying abroad in Innsbruck was the most eye-opening experience in my life. Seeing how other people in the world live their day-to-day life has changed me forever," said program alumna and UNO graduate Rachel Horn. "I have been told my whole life that 'the sky is the limit' and after studying abroad I feel as if I can truly feel the depth of that statement. It is an amazing learning experience when you can actually be a part of another culture and truly see the possibilities of the world."
"We are incredibly proud of the UNO-Innsbruck International Summer School and its 38-year record of success," said Alea Cot, UNO's assistant vice president for international education.
"The staff and faculty are top professionals in their fields and participating on this program is a family tradition for many of our students," Cot said.
"Numerous wonderful activities and relationships have developed from the success of this summer school and its history is woven into the fabric of both institutions. We are already looking forward to celebrating our 40th anniversary in 2015!"