Finding Friends in Austria

Some of my roommates and I in the town center of Graz.

Upon learning that I would be spending my semester aboard in Graz, Austria I had no reaction other than surprise. Frankly, I had forgot I even put it on my application for study aboard locations. Looking back, it’s astounding that a city in which I never would have considered visiting is now one that fostered friendships, independence and holds great significance to me. Located in southern Austria, a country nestled between European hotspots like Italy and Switzerland and lesser-known countries like Slovenia and Croatia it brings an interesting and unexpected mix of people together. I think this is exemplified in the various nationalities of my roommates. I shared a wall with a 26-year-old Boasian woman who was working in a pharmaceutical lab developing a drug and finishing her PhD. On the other side of me a 23-year-old Finish civil engineering master’s student resided. Lastly, down the hall was a newly 18-year-old from Kazakhstan, who was getting her undergraduate degree in world economics. Then there’s me a 21-year-old American majoring in finance and management information systems. I think it’s fair to say we were a diverse group of girls all coming from places none of us were familiar with. Though I came away from my study aboard experience with a fair amount of knowledge regarding Austrian culture I feel more well versed in daily life of a Finish student and the structure of a Kazakhstani family. Now being connected with them on social media I still am learning things and find their different use of the technology interesting and refreshing. This lends itself perfectly to my GLI theme of technology and society. Prior to my departure to Austria I set intentions to relate my experience back to my GLI theme and was interested in how social media and technology is used in different cultures. I didn’t realize this would be so easy to do, but in hindsight I should have seen it coming. I quickly learned that it’s not just Americans who are obsessed with social media and that for many people giving them your Instagram handle is akin to giving them your phone number. These online connections create real meaning when you actually talk to someone and hear about their life and culture. From my Kazakhstani roommate, Aru, I learned that from the outside her country may put on a good show and appear to be a democracy, but this performance is just that, a performance. In reality she and many other citizens are frustrated by rigged elections that keep the same men in power for years. Along with that she has watched her qualified and educated father continuously get demoted over time, not due to a lack of skill, but because he is not a member of the ruling party. Had I not learned of this background I would have viewed Aru’s Instagram posts that praise American politicians like AOC and just thought she was a fan and interested in politics, however since I’m familiar with her concerns I know these Instagram posts are fueled by frustration and a legitimate longing to be a part of a different system. While some may think of social media as a hindrance in learning about new cultures and making sincere friends, I found it to be a useful tool that puts new friends’ backgrounds and stories into media and words. When social media is paired with an eagerness to learn and in depth conversations more is revealed and can be reflected upon. 

A church that I got to walk by everyday on my way to school.

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