All it took was a photo.
Nadia Bohonos had been casually browsing EAP’s Program Finder when she came upon an image of a neighbourhood boasting polished cobblestone streets and medieval-style homes in a rainbow of pastel colours. “I know it sounds patronizing,” she says. “But my first thought was that it was just so cute! As soon as I saw that picture I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
That oh-so-cute neighbourhood ended up being Old Town, the 800-year-old city center of Innsbruck, Austria. Sold on its charm and historic roots, Nadia packed her bags and headed for the Austrian Alps to participate in a six-month-long exchange at the University of Innsbruck.
Despite travelling extensively with her family throughout her youth, Nadia still had some anxieties about living and studying in a foreign country, namely the fact that she didn’t know a word of German upon her arrival. “Two of my classes had profs that would lecture in English but would use German for their PowerPoints,” she says. “I had to use Google Translate to make sense of the slides.”
Thankfully, the friends she made both in her classes and through the university’s Canadian Center were happy to give her an assist when it came to breaking down the language barrier. For Nadia, the experience really reinforced the importance of intercultural communication. “Learning how to have conversations with people who don’t speak the same language as you or come from a different background than you do is so valuable,” she remarks thoughtfully. “It’s not just important for going abroad either; it’s a life skill.”
Given that she was only enrolled in three classes, the pace of Nadia’s academic life in Innsbruck was significantly more relaxed than what she was used to back in Edmonton. “I was only in class two, maybe three times a week,” she says. “I had a lot of time to explore the city.”
One of the ways she grew to be acquainted with Innsbruck was by hiking. Although she certainly appreciated the beautiful landscape, Nadia’s favourite thing about hiking in the Alps was visiting the alms. Unique to the region, alms are small huts scattered along hiking trails that serve as rest stops and sometimes even lodging for outdoor adventurers like Nadia. “I made it my mission to visit as many of them as I could,” she says. “Anybody could stop inside and grab a beer or a hot meal, something you definitely can’t do while hiking in Canada!”
While there were plenty of things to do during the warmer months, Nadia says winter was when Innsbruck truly came alive. “Winter was super busy because it’s ski season,” she explains, “People come from everywhere to ski in the Alps.”
When she wasn’t hitting the slopes, Nadia’s favourite winter activity was visiting the Christmas markets. With seven such markets scattered around the city, Nadia made it her mission to sample the very best holiday goods from each. “I visited the markets so much my Austrian flatmates started calling me the Christmas Queen!” she says with a laugh.
The extra free time outside of class also gave her the opportunity to take a number of weekend trips. Generous scholarships, including the Education Abroad Individual Award and the Faculty of ALES’ Bar None International Experience Award, enabled Nadia to check out cities like Brussels, Munich, Budapest, Prague and Riga. “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to travel as much as I did without the funding I received,” she says. “Having a little more financial freedom made Austria — and Europe in general — so much more accessible to me.”
Nadia’s semester in Innsbruck was the last of her undergraduate degree in Forestry. The courses she took there, focusing on subjects such as biogeography, biodiversity and climate change, only further affirmed her future career goals. “Environmental management and protection have been my priorities since day 1,” she says. “Austria is directly affected by climate change so I was able to see firsthand why this kind of work is so timely and important.”
Nadia’s exchange experience impacted her deeply, so much so that she takes a little piece of it with her wherever she goes. Inspired by a friend, Nadia collected postcards from all of the places she visited while abroad and transformed them into a unique souvenir. “I wrote what I call journal entries on the back of each one and then strung them all together,” she explains. “Whenever I move somewhere new, I put them up in my room so I can be reminded of all the memories I made in Innsbruck.”
When asked what she would say to others who may be on the fence about studying abroad, Nadia says not to let the fear of homesickness get in your way. “I won’t lie, that first week all I could think was ‘Why did I do this?’” she admits. “Some days will be rough but trust me, when it’s good? It’s great.”