BYU students begin ‘different’ Vienna study abroad program


VIENNA, Austria—While the average BYU student begins Summer Term this week by visiting the Bookstore and calculating how long it will take to get from the Kimball Tower to the Richards Building, a unique group of Cougars speaks German and makes plans to attend the opera as part of the Vienna Study Abroad program.

Photo by Stephanie Rhodes. Students from BYU's Vienna Study Abroad program walk past The Vienna State Opera during their orientation on their first day in Austria.

Tucked away in an inner courtyard near Vienna’s city center, past a statue of Christ and up a winding staircase, the Austro-American Institute of Education hosted the newly arrived and anxious BYU students for orientation Tuesday morning. BYU’s Office of International Study Programs, located in the Kennedy Center, offers dozens of programs like this one in Vienna. The programs literally circle the globe.

The BYU students in sunny Vienna appeared visibly calmer by mid-morning Tuesday as they listened to Austro-American Institute Director Hermann Weissgaerber explain the history of the institute and its long relationship with BYU.

Since 1926 this institution has hosted several American universities.  Katie Isaak, the on-site BYU professor who will teach a humanities course in Vienna this summer, said the Austro-American Institute is helpful. The institute finds instructors for language courses and arranges for students to stay with Viennese host families.

“I don’t know where the program would be without them,” Isaak said of the Austro-American Institute. “They are just remarkable.”

The students have the opportunity to learn German from native speakers and to study art history in actual art venues, which Isaak said is an advantage for the students.

“The great thing about the class here is that instead of sitting in the classroom I would say 75 to 80 percent of the class is in a museum,” she said. “There is so much in Vienna. You could spend a whole year studying here and you could still not see all there is to see.”

For many of the students who arrived Monday, the cultural experience was one of the main factors behind their decision to come to Austria this summer. Kika Latu, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism, admitted she doesn’t “speak a lick of German” but her enthusiasm was undeterred.

“Art and music have always been a big part of my life,” she said.  “I want to get a better feel for the people here and the art history.”

Daniel Lofgren is a junior from the University of Utah who is waiting to get into its architecture program. He was allowed to join with the BYU group this term and he said he was attracted by its emphasis on art history and the city’s architecture.

“Vienna is kinda a cool melting pot of styles,” he said.

After informing the students of the free wireless Internet provided by the institute, Hermann Weissgaerber admittedly stepped into a father role and cautioned students at Tuesday’s orientation against spending too much time online.

“You have not flown 5,000 miles to sit here all day and Skype and talk to your friends,” he said. “The Internet is a blessing and a doom at the same time. It’s such a beautiful city and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for some of you.”

The students did not have much time for Skyping or G-chatting since shortly after their orientation they were off to grab lunch and explore a nearby market, led by Markus Mroz, a senior student adviser for the Austro-American Institute. During the orientation, Mroz had given students a brief rundown of the city and its quirks, informing them that Vienna’s tagline is, “Vienna is different.” While intended to be a positive statement, he said, the differences are evident, from the idiosyncratic subway system to the circular layout of the city. Mroz explained at length to the students how it came to be that three separate versions of the Danube River run through Vienna.

The students also received information about their host families. A former director of the Austro-American Institute, Fraulein Weissgaerber, said many of the host families specifically request BYU students.

“Why?” she asked. “Because usually BYU students try and integrate into the host family. They don’t drink. They don’t smoke. They are not obnoxious.”

She also said living with a host family is one of the best parts of the Vienna Study Abroad program. One of the matriarchs of a host family even demands to see and help correct the students’ German homework before they turn it in to their teachers. Another family has a cat named Beethoven.

“The only way to integrate – even to scratch the surface – is to live with an Austrian family,” Frau Weissgaerber said.

At the end of the semester, the study abroad students, many of whom have musical backgrounds, will perform for their host families.

“We get to play Brahms where he wrote it, so that’s kinda cool,” said Whitney Hirst, a freshman double majoring in English and physics.

For Hirst, this Summer Term represents the end of a seven-year road of preparation.  Because she knew her family could not afford to send her, she began working odd jobs during high school, took German classes and worked hard to keep her scholarship.

For some of the students, this week marked their first extended period away from home or outside the United States.

For example, Morgan Bagley is a junior studying graphic information technology. The Vienna program was attractive enough to her to leave a fiancé back at home while she came to participate.

“I’ve lived at home my whole life so I wanted to experience the world,” she said. “I’m kinda freaking out. I’m excited.”

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