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Studying Abroad: Life as a Student in a Different University Setting

Living and studying in a different country is often a defining moment in a young person’s life. Though the US and Austrian educational systems have much in common, one of the challenges faces by Fulbright students from the two countries is adapting to the differences they come across while navigating academia in their respective host country. We asked Austrian Fulbright student Julia Pataky and US Fulbright student Nathan Stobaugh to shed some light on their experience studying in a new environment and to share their thoughts on what aspects of university life in their host country could be incorporated into student life back home.

A snapshot of my life as an Austrian Fulbright student in Washington, DC

By Julia Pataky
Photo credit: Julia Pataky

Only five months ago, I embarked on my journey to the US as an Austrian Fulbright student to pursue my master’s degree in international and intercultural communication with a focus in public diplomacy at American University’s School of International Service (SIS). Now that I have successfully finished my first semester at SIS, I am happy to share my experiences and talk about my life in the nation’s capital. 

Although this isn’t my first longer stay abroad, it has definitely been the most life-changing one for me so far. Studying at one of the top-ten schools for international relations worldwide in a cosmopolitan, diverse, and international environment has not only shaped my research interests and academic endeavors, but has also allowed me to experience the day-to-day cultural and policy life of Washington, DC. Especially considering my personal and the Fulbright mission of promoting mutual understanding between Austria and the US, it is safe to say that there is no better place for me to be to fulfill this mission.

Coming from an undergraduate background in translation as well as in foreign languages and cultures, my primary academic interests in public diplomacy are reflected in the field’s goal of building relationships between nations by facilitating sustainable collaboration and utilizing cultural advocacy to strengthen communication across ideological, religious, and political borders. In addition, I am studying and researching the role of language in public diplomacy and how language shapes cross-cultural communication and interaction. I also work as a research assistant for a professor of political economy at SIS, which allows me to explore the diverse field of international relations even further.

My experience on campus has showed me that American University’s academic and campus life offers a vast array of possibilities to engage with the community by, for example, joining student clubs like the Culture and Communication Student Forum, participating in on-campus volunteer activities, attending regularly organized sporting events, or taking part in various mentorship programs. American University also sets its students up for success by providing resources such as early-on career support and giving their students access to technology labs, writing centers, sports facilities, and the library seven days a week. Furthermore, the faculty work closely with students and offer guidance when needed, which is also facilitated by small program numbers. These rich and diverse resources definitely exceed the scope of my previous academic experiences in Vienna.

Finally, I am very happy that I have become a part of the academic community at SIS and built a close-knit cohort with my fellow graduate students in the program since my arrival in Washington, DC, in August. I am eager to start the next semester knowing that many exciting and rich experiences are yet to come.

A glance into my time as a US Fulbright student in Vienna, Austria

By Nathan Stobaugh
Photo credit: Jan Dreer for the IFK

The first few months of my Fulbright grant have reminded me of the many different forms connections can take: personal, professional, institutional, intellectual. Establishing connections might be considered the defining task at the outset of a dissertation project. Beginning this task in Austria, I have the privilege of working among the interdisciplinary academic community at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (IFK) in Vienna. The projects of the scholars at the IFK this year span a wide range—from Sufism to the contemporary circus, from Yiddish drama to quantum physics. Sharing our work with each other and offering feedback in return requires us to make our thoughts communicable. Communication across linguistic and disciplinary boundaries among this international group sometimes poses challenges, but those challenges often lead to a sharper sense of what is at stake in our projects and a greater clarity of intellectual purpose. Opening such connections is not supplemental to the work we do at the IFK, but rather has asserted itself, in my experience, as a fundamental component of how thought begins.

My own project concerns the work of the postwar media and performance artist VALIE EXPORT, particularly the ways in which issues of gender, psychology, and mass media intersect in her art. My research has been supported by regular visits to the recently opened VALIE EXPORT Center in Linz, which, like the IFK, is also affiliated with the Kunstuniversität Linz. These institutional, even geographic connections, made possible through the kinds of constellations that Fulbright encourages, form the network that has enabled my initial dissertation work. The capable and welcoming people I have met at these institutions have supported me as I’ve participated in a public discussion held with the director of the VALIE EXPORT Center as well as a conference on art and politics in 1968, where I offered my thoughts on how EXPORT’s work fits into the particular landscape of that crucial historical moment.

The visiting scholars at the IFK include both junior fellows like myself as well as more established senior fellows, and this combination of thinkers at different points along their intellectual trajectories has proved a fertile mix. The IFK fosters active interactions between junior and senior scholars, who all offer feedback and critique in open dialogue with each other. This openness between professors and doctoral students is something I’d love to see encouraged more in America. The opportunity to challenge and support each other as peers, even while acknowledging the differences in our levels of experience, has made certain kinds of connections possible that I have not encountered before. For instance, a senior scholar asked me to work with them on a translation of a German text they had written, which will now soon be published in an American journal. Discovering affinities with scholars working across various disciplines and at various stages of their work is dependent on institutions that encourage these connections. Such connections form not only the basis of successful intellectual work, but the labor of bringing this work to a broader world.