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Finding Purpose Through Sustainable Education Abroad

By Yael Bister-Simancas

This past fall semester, I was given the opportunity to completely uproot my comfortable Gainesville life and head to a place with unknown opportunities ahead of me. I was accepted to take part in a UF Exchange Program in Vienna, Austria at the University of Life Sciences and Natural Resources (BOKU). For five months, I dove head first into Viennese culture and allowed myself to embrace the unfamiliarity of it all. Attending this program as the only UF (and American) student forced me to take a deep reflection into how I want to shape my life, who I want to surround myself with, and what I want to spend my time doing. It was a five month experiment that I would deem a success. 

Students in UN simulation

I have become so grateful for this past fall semester, especially the school program I attended, for allowing me to gain a new perspective and a deeper understanding into something which I am very passionate about: climate change and how to combat it. During my time there, I was pursuing a bachelors in natural resource and environmental management. I took a total of eight courses, including two master courses, ranging from topics like economics, policy making, and theoretical developments. Each course offered me a different set of tools and materials to look at the problems society faces ahead.

One of my favorite achievements from the past semester was a United Nations (U.N.) Simulation course I got to partake in. The course was offered to master students in University of Vienna and BOKU to create an interdisciplinary approach to climate migration. Due to the limited classes offered in English, I was able to join the course even with a bachelors standing. Each student was designated a country to study and complete a detailed scientific research paper on. The paper included information about the country’s history, culture, and specific topics pertaining to the environmental and political field. My focus was on Japan and more generally, the Umbrella Group: New Zealand, the United States, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Australia. At the start of this project, I knew nothing about Japan, however after hours on end spent researching, I was able to take my environmental knowledge to a more global level, especially within the topic of climate migration

Students participating in UN simulation

To help us prepare for the project, our professors provided us networking opportunities with professionals in fields of development, climate migration, the environment, international affairs, and more. Through this, I was able to converse with very knowledgeable people and see a possible path for my future. After the completion of the paper portion, each student was given the opportunity to attend the United Nations located in Vienna and prepare for a simulation which engaged in climate diplomacy over the course of two days. It was rewarding to utilize all the information we gathered for months and turn it into something tangible. Although no final conclusion was reached on the topic of how countries should deal with the looming worry of climate migration, being able to come together with students from around the world and discuss something so important was satisfactory in itself. 

Student United Nations ID

BOKU offers a wide range of disciplines which pertain to environmentalism. It is a smaller school and campus compared to the UF, which was one of the first culture shocks I faced. The niche course offerings influence the size of the school, but also encourages a close-knit, friendly, and collaborative environment. The university is also very open to international students for their bachelor and master programs, with 11% of the student population being non-Vienna residents. Each person, professor and student alike, I encountered had the same goal, but different ways to accomplish it. Discourse about the environmental crisis could be heard all around campus. People cared and loved what they were studying because they had a purpose. I am thankful for being able to share that purpose with others.

Vienna, Austria

I have many people to thank for guiding me to this experience, including Dr. Wysocki, the UF dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for believing in me and this opportunity. I would also like to thank my University of Florida International Center’s coordinator, Mrs. Williams-Franklin and the rest of the team, who guided me throughout this process in a very patient and supportive way. 

If you are presented with the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself, I recommend going for it. You may just find some passion and purpose along the way.

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