News

December 18, 2007

Teaching, Studying, and Researching in Vienna

<5>Briana Niblick ’06 discusses her experiences in Austria as a Fulbright Scholar

Briana Niblick ’06 graduated with a B.S. civil engineering and A.B. with a major in German. Through a Fulbright Grant, she is spending September 2007-June 2008 teaching, studying, and performing research at BOKU, the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

I came to Austria with a very specific purpose in mind: to study sustainable water systems, teach English to Austrian high school students, and “increase mutual understanding” between the people of Austria and of the United States. Of course I wanted to improve my German and knowledge of Austrian culture along the way too, but my first priority was the research and the teaching.

My plans changed on my first full day in Vienna.

Fewer than 24 hours after I landed in Vienna, I met with three people who would become my research colleagues at the Universitat fur Bodenkultur (BOKU), the environmental and agricultural university where I would spend the majority of my time. The project I originally proposed in my Fulbright application—regarding the sustainable design and management of water supply systems in developing countries—has now evolved into two separate projects, both connected with current research being conducted in the environmental engineering department at the BOKU.

The first project deals with evaluating and improving the sustainability of greywater recycling applications in Alpine mountain huts, while the second deals with evaluating and improving the sustainability of sanitation systems in Uganda. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the Uganda project, since it is the more unusual of the two projects, not to mention that most people do not travel to Austria to work on a project in Uganda.

The project in Uganda is actually part of a larger EU-funded project, named “ROSA: Resource-Oriented Sanitation concepts for peri-urban areas in Africa.” A joint project between five countries in the European Union and four countries in East Africa, ROSA helps one city in each of the four countries (Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Kenya) to build sustainable sanitation systems and organize the associated infrastructure.

“Sustainable sanitation systems” include ecologically sustainable (“ecosan”) toilets paired with greywater recycling systems, as well as procedures for composting the solid waste from the toilets to make fertilizer. Waste in this project is considered a resource, rather than a problematic disposal issue. The sustainability evaluation of this project particularly interests me because it offers the opportunity to build upon my experience with Lafayette’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

Since I had traveled to Honduras and co-designed a rainwater harvesting system for the rural village of La Fortuna, I had gained much theoretical and practical knowledge about researching and designing low-tech, resource-oriented systems that has proved quite useful in the ROSA project.

However, I have not needed to rely solely on my experience in Honduras with EWB to participate in the ROSA project. Shortly after joining the ROSA team, I was offered the opportunity to visit Uganda for ROSA’s first-year progress meeting. My main task, since I was completely new to the project, was to meet the team members and to visit the working site and surrounding area. So for two weeks at the end of October, I participated in technical training workshops in the capital city of Kampala, visited the project site in Kitgum on Uganda’s northern border to Sudan, and met approximately 40 other team members from nine different countries.

I also had a chance to do some sightseeing and speak with some of the local people outside of the project area. I can confidently say that the people of Uganda are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. They all asked me how I was, what I thought of their country, how my family was doing. These were not superficial questions to pass the time; they truly had good intentions and waited eagerly for my answers.

Traveling to Uganda during my first full month in Austria made being in Austria seem so much more “familiar.” Aside from the obvious language difference, both Austria and the United States have running water, adequate sanitation facilities, and paved roads, to name a few of Uganda’s major challenges. In Austria, I study like any other student, work like any other adult, and take care of my daily errands like any other person living in a major city. I am not allowed to vote in Austria, but I do just about everything else. And of course, I have fun, too. Vienna is a city of the arts, of nature, and of cozy cafes. I do everything here that I would do in the United States; the location is the only major difference in daily life.

When I meet a person in Austria for the first time, I usually explain the Fulbright Program. I also try to communicate through my words and actions, how unique each “typical” American can be and how we do not always measure up to the stereotypes which precede us. Granted, most Austrians perceive me from the moment I meet them as an atypical American, simply because I speak German and am attempting to learn the local dialect.

Yet regardless of what language I speak, I still represent the United States wherever I go. This is always an honor, though there certainly have been some heated moments. I am sometimes assumed and expected to represent and defend the entire U.S. nation, especially the government and its policies. One of the English teachers at the school where I teach recently challenged me in a Devil Advocate’s manner to explain to his class why the United States did not incorporate Iraq and Iran as the 51st and 52nd states.

I have also been asked why the American Dream is not available to all people living in the country, but only to some of its citizens. In such cases, I try not to blindly blame or defend the United States, but rather attempt to explain the current situation from my unique perspective. Some days I feel as if I learn more about American culture than my students do.

My daily activities as a Fulbright Scholar remind me of how interconnected we all are. I chose to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship specifically in Austria because I speak the language and because the BOKU in Vienna has top-notch researchers and professors in my field of environmental engineering. Both of those reasons pertain to Austrian culture, yet I teach U.S.-American culture and English every day, and am doing research on water systems both in Austria and in Uganda. These three countries—Austria, the United States, and Uganda—each play an integral role in my daily life here. The days when I work with all three countries are the days in which I feel most successful.

The Fulbright Commission and fellow Fulbright Scholars form my base network in Vienna. This network is my foundation in a city over 4,000 miles away from home. The commission attends to all administrative matters and we as fellow Fulbright Scholars support one another. However, the Fulbright is not the only support system I have in Vienna. I have my fellow teachers at the school where I teach, my colleagues at the BOKU, and other friends (mainly Austrians) outside of the Fulbright circle. These people help me to orient myself in Vienna. Without them, I would feel lost between two continents and multiple identities.

As I write this, it is the first day of the Advent season in Austria. I am sitting in one of Vienna’s hundreds of cafes with a pot of green tea, looking out on the Spittelberger Christkindlmarkt, a market full of Austrian Christmas ornaments, artisan crafts, and friends drinking Gluhwein and Punsch in the chilly late autumn evening. The winter holiday season has arrived once again. This year, I’ll be thousands of miles away from my hometown and away from a college I called home for several years. I reflect back upon the professors, the advisors, the friends, and the family that brought me here. For them and for this Fulbright opportunity, I am truly grateful.

Niblick has also received a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship for a year’s study at Technical University of Munich and an IGERT (Integrated Graduate Education & Research Traineeship) grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue doctoral studies in environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. She has decided to decline the DAAD in order to accept the Fulbright. When she returns from Austria, she will begin her studies through the IGERT at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

While at Lafayette, she worked with Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, professor and head of foreign languages and literatures, on EXCEL research exploring the cultural identity of East Germans residing in an area known as Euroregion Neisse. Also with Lamb-Faffelberger, she performed independent study research on three influential East German writers and an honors thesis entitled “Zafer Senocak: Questions of Identity in German-Turkish Literature.”

 

Since Lafayette, she has been working as an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer at an organization called Civic House, which is the hub for student-led community service and advocacy at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

  • Three Lafayette Seniors and an Alumna Receive Fulbright Grants
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Foreign Languages and Literatures
  • EXCEL/Undergraduate Research

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