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Study Abroad—One Person’s Experience

Studying in Graz

By Ruth Reeber

Ruth enjoying swedish midsommar partyThe best way to talk about studying in Austria would be the Austrian way: in a café, over a beer or a coffee. Much of my semester in Graz was spent exploring the different pubs, cafés and restaurants, which ranged from traditional Vienna-style coffee houses to bakeries with Starbucks-style take-away coffee, from regional specialties to conveyor-belt Asian fusion. And, of course, there was the Austrian student’s mainstay: Döner kebab, a sort of stuffed pita with meat, veggies and spicy yogurt sauce, which one can find on every other city block at all hours of the day and night.

I did not choose to study in Graz for spring semester of 2011 because of the food, though, or even because of the beer. When I was trying to choose a location, an international student who lived in my residence hall advised me to take advantage of the opportunity to learn a new language and really challenge myself. Having a bit of an international background already—I spent the first five years of my life in Ghana, where my parents were missionaries, and the rest in Seattle, where they work with international students—this seemed perfectly natural! So, with three semesters’ worth of German, one suitcase and a backpack, I set off for Technische Üniversität Graz (Graz Technical University).

I arrived in the middle of winter and promptly crashed into the language barrier at full speed. It was crushingly embarrassing to run out of cash at the grocery store and not know how to apologize and ask to come back in fifteen minutes (I learned, though). Fortunately, English-speakers were numerous and very gracious, and I was living in a residence hall full of international students, most of whom were in the same situation. Ironically, in a building full of students from all over the world, my roommate turned out to be a civil engineering major from WSU.

Distillery tour with EmmaWith so many cultures packed into one place, one might expect a lot of conflict. However, what came to the surface most often were the things we had in common: a desire to see the world and an interest in other cultures, as well as science and engineering and an interest in having fun. One of my favorite memories was a night in Steirerpub, an odd little bar which combines food and drink from the Steiermark (the region in Austria where Graz is located) with English and Scottish pub style. The live music was, at one point, a man playing Simon & Garfunkel songs with half-German, half-English lyrics. In a pub full of internationals, everyone knew the chorus to “The Boxer.”

Tools at the medieval festivalThe academic aspect of the term was not quite so simple. I had completed most of the course requirements for that semester already, thanks to a year’s worth of community college transfer credits, but I still needed to meet the University of Idaho’s full-time requirement of 12 credits (24 ECTS credits), and I had signed up for several engineering and physics courses in the hopes that they would transfer as something useful. That meant I wound up taking seven classes, including three German language courses.

All of the engineering classes I took were taught in English, with the exception of biomechanics, where I learned a very specific set of German vocabulary, including my personal favorite, Halswirbelsäulenverletzungen, meaning “injuries to the cervical vertebrae.” Most of these courses were taught in a seminar format: one to two weeks of intensive lecture, followed by a written or an oral exam.

BudapestI also was able to travel throughout Europe during my semester abroad. Many of my favorite memories came from these experiences: wandering the UK during Easter break, a trip to Salzburg with my roommate and her parents, a weekend getting lost in Budapest, a rock festival in Germany where I was “adopted” by a friendly group of Germans (two of whom were engineers—I learned that thermodynamics jokes bridge cultures), a visit to a friend’s home in Sweden—and more. Graz became home base, and I always breathed a sigh of relief when I saw signs in German again.

Some things were difficult. It took me the entire term to figure out the academic system. I missed my family and friends in the US. There were days when all I wanted was a cup of coffee at Bucer’s, a syllabus in English, and a break from being constantly confused. But the pros vastly outweighed the cons, and having met those challenges and others and survived them, I can look at every subsequent obstacle with a little less fear and a little more confidence. Difficulty does not imply impossibility.