A Family's Fulbright in Austria

Dr. Ashley Steel Ecological
USDA Forest Service
Austria, 2008


Our Fulbright experience started on a very busy day - such a busy day that I very nearly missed the opportunity altogether. There was a guest seminar speaker visiting my office, a professor from Vienna, Austria. After lunch and his speech, he asked if I had time to meet later and I almost said “no.”  I remember my hesitation clearly. I had so many deadlines and “important things” to deal with that afternoon. Luckily, I hedged my bets and suggested that he swing by when he was finished with his other meetings.  He did, and by the time I left the office that day, Stefan Schmutz and I had scoped out a special session at a scientific conference, and drafted a collaborative research proposal.  Thank goodness I didn’t let busyness completely eclipse the opportunity of a lifetime.  About two years later, my family of four arrived at our apartment in Vienna with seven suitcases, four carry-ons, a laptop, and a giant ski bag.  It was New Year’s Day and there was a dusting of snow. I spent six months researching and lecturing on landscape-scale river ecology working with the Institute for Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU).  My research in Seattle focused on building statistical models to link watershed conditions such as percent forested area, road density, or mean summer temperature to the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of the river itself.  My collaborators in the IHG had participated in a large pan-European collaborative to collect fish community data  across Europe.  Our proposal was to apply the landscape approaches that had been successful for modeling salmon in the Pacific Northwest, United States, to pan-European fish community data. During this time I also led a seminar in which we wrote an invited literature review of landscape-scale approaches to modeling riverine fish and taught a more general course on river ecology including cross-continental comparisons such as the Columbia River, full of dams and Pacific salmon, versus the Danube River, full of dams and Danube salmon.  In their final course projects, students gave presentations on various river ecology topics and sampled smoked salmon from Seattle.

Steel 3

Initially, I was concerned about bringing my whole family on this professional trip.  But those concerns were quickly relieved as I began formal planning for our visit.  The first reaction of my Fulbright Scholar Program connection in Vienna, the executive director of the Austrian-American Educational Commission, was something like “Fantastic! Four for the price of one!”  Our older daughter was in third grade at the time and we found her a place in a bi-lingual school within the Viennese public school system.  She made close friends quickly, including students from Australia and Turkey.  Our younger daughter was in kindergarten and her schooling turned out to be more problematic.  The Austrian system doesn’t really have a kindergarten in the American sense of the word, which was a bit surprising since “kindergarten” is, after all, a German word.  She was ready to learn to read but the available Austrian options for kids her age were more like preschools.  After visiting over a dozen schools in five days, we finally settled on the Vienna Elementary School, an English-immersion school.  We were disappointed that she did not learn much German, but she learned a little in the playground, tried ballet and soccer, learned to read (as she had hoped), and enjoyed piano lessons while at school.  She was the hands-down best English student at the school!

Steel 2

We were also initially worried about whether my husband would find exciting opportunities while in Vienna.  Over several family trips prior to Vienna, we had begun joking about writing a book and had taken lots of informal notes on napkins and scraps of paper.  We figured that, while in Vienna, Bill could simply write the book.  Happily, he also found all sorts of professional opportunities.  He worked with a forestry student to revise two scientific manuscripts and initiated collaborations with researchers from BOKU and the Vienna Departments of Water and Forestry that led to a collaborative, comparative manuscript. We did start that book too, but it turns out that it takes a bit more than six months of causal, part-time writing to complete a book project.  Now, over four years after returning from Vienna, we finally published it! It’s not a guidebook or a memoir of our experiences, though there are anecdotes sprinkled throughout.  The book is a how-to guide for traveling with children.  It has an educator’s spin, offering parents creative ideas for engaging kids and turning them into travel partners.  We talk about preparing kids for a travel adventure, enjoying long plane flights, planning successful days on the road, creative journaling, and reinforcing multicultural experiences at home.  We eventually had to start a blog to promote the book and more of our Austrian experiences are there including our e-letters home describing observations on Austrian life and culture.  We like to think that the book, and maybe even the blog, can contribute in a tiny way to a greater enthusiasm for cross-cultural understanding.

We’ve been back to Vienna twice since the Fulbright experience and have dreams of returning for another long stay.  Both girls now consider Vienna to be a second home and have fantastic memories of palaces, giant slices of cake, trams, wandering in the vineyards, and amazingly, classical music.  They gained a deep understanding of cultural differences as a result of our experience and also an understanding of how similar most people really are.  Time abroad has certainly given them a new lens on American life.  They are less patient with large automobiles, fast food, and a lack of public transportation.  They regularly complain about missing Austria.  It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what we miss so much.  I think it is intense family time combined with the opportunity to learn from a culture that truly believes in the value of sitting outside, sipping a cup of coffee, and enjoying insightful conversation.

Five years later, my work collaborSteel 1ations still continue. Several manuscripts are in progress and we have hosted two Austrian graduate students here in Seattle.  Words and ideas from Austria have slipped into our way of thinking.  I commonly ask at meetings about identifying the “red thread” that runs through a presentation or manuscript.  I differentiate between river restoration and river rehabilitation and I think about “human pressures” on aquatic ecosystems.  In the United States, we tend to think of current ecological conditions in comparison to wilderness or natural conditions.  But what does “pre-European settlement conditions” mean in Vienna?  Human development, war, and political ideologies have all contributed to the ecological communities on the landscape today. One of my favorite statistical ideas is also from our time in Vienna, the possibility of underlying correlation structures that cloud our ability to untangle landscape-scale effects on river systems. Preliminary research on the idea has now been published and is an integral part of my thinking about riverine landscapes.

Our family is deeply grateful to the Fulbright Scholar Program and, in particular, to the Austrian-American Educational Commission.  Our youngest daughter has already been online to find out when she can apply for her own fellowship!