On top of Billy’s Bar of Strobl, Austria:
At 1:30 in the A.M, the DJ finally threw on the Black-Eyed Peas. The bar shook beneath me as Harry scrambled up to join Thomas and me. Harry grinned at both of us, adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses and began to shake what his mama gave him. The people on the floor below us - a mixture of Turks, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Americans, and Austrians - looked up at him and cheered.
How did I come to be dancing on the bar of Strobl’s only disco during that rainy night last summer? It started, like it often does, with roots. The child of an Austrian mother and American father, I’d always been conscious of my Austrian half. I visited when I was seventeen, but hadn’t been back since. After reading Faust in German 317 with Oberlin Professor Herr Huff, I realized that I wanted to go back to Austria. I wanted to talk, laugh, drink, and study like my European counterparts. I wanted to find somewhere else where I could feel at home.
So I applied to the Sommerhochschule, an Austrian interdisciplinary summer program with a focus on European Studies. The SHS combined German language classes, European Studies courses, and a robust recreation program. Located in the Salzkammergut region, the SHS had originally been established as an intercultural exchange program between Austria and the United States but now drew students from all over the world. At SHS, I could study subjects, such as the EU institutions, that I wouldn’t have found at Oberlin, in the country I had loved as a child.
As excited as I was, SHS was difficult. When I first started at Strobl, classes intimidated me, as the topics and teaching styles were totally new. Before Strobl, I had never taken an oral exam, participated in a model EU simulation, or tried to explain the terms “annulment", “infringement", and “arbitration” in my limited legal German to an Austrian law student. The custom of some of the Eastern European students of copying the notes, word for word, of the person beside them in class unsettled me. I was totally disoriented by the intermittent mixing of German, English, and many other languages. But by the end of the first week, I felt comfortable in my classes and on the campus.
But this is a story about Oberlin. What does dancing on the bar of a rural Austrian disco have to do with an Oberlin education?
At Oberlin, we students are encouraged, are told, that we can do anything or be anyone we want. Since my experience in Austria, I’ve discovered just how expansive that idea is. At Strobl, I met future teachers, lawyers, engineers, diplomats, accountants, and businessmen. Through exposure to the ambitions of these fellow classmates, I realized that some of my own ideas were more ambitious than I had originally thought. I wanted to continue my studies of the EU. I wanted to spend part of my life living in Austria. I wanted to pursue a job in the EU institutions or with the UN. These dreams gave me a new direction and sense of purpose - which is, at its heart, what Oberlin is all about.
As I write this now, I have one week until I return for my senior year. I don’t feel bored at the prospect of senior year, or worried about the future: instead, I’m excited. I plan to use the time I have left in Oberlin to explore as many of my new interests as possible. As cliché as it sounds, my time in Austria encouraged me to see the whole world as open to me and to consider building a life in numerous parts of the world, not just in the United States. A chance, if one wants to look at it another way, to dance on all the bars of the world.