Alumni Spotlight on Sierra Winters: Bringing Austrian Culture Back Home

friends in Austria

We recently caught up with Greenheart Travel alumna, Sierra Winters, about her high school abroad program in Austria, what she learned while abroad and what aspects of the Austrian culture she brought back to the States. Read the interview below to learn more about her experience as an exchange student last fall.

Q: What aspects of Austrian culture did you connect with the most, what did you miss from the States?

I especially felt connected with the pursuit of happiness shown by the Austrians. Austria is known for its happy culture. In order to achieve this happiness, Austrians generally work less, celebrate more, and stay involved with their families and communities.

Working overtime is considered a sign of inefficiency, not of dedication. I agree with this lifestyle; I think the typical American works too much and is considerably less happy than the typical Austrian. Multiple times, my host father said after any complaint he made, “Ah, but it’s a good life.” This overlying value of being appreciative for life itself is a value that greatly aligns with my lifestyle.

I felt more connected with the athletics aspect of culture in the U.S. than in Austria. Perhaps because Austria has a lower obesity rate than the U.S. (they eat less processed and fast foods and a smaller amount of food in general), they do less organized sport. While they love to walk, hike, and ski, there are no school sports teams. I love to exercise with a team (I am a swimmer and runner), so it was a little difficult for me to have no competitions to look forward to and nobody with whom I could regularly exercise.

hiking in austria 

Q: What parts of the Austrian way of life will you incorporate back into your U.S. lifestyle?

The Austrians have an incredible sense of community and family, which I have begun to incorporate into my U.S. life. My host family always ate lunch together, and sometimes drank coffee, ate cake, and played card games afterwards. Every evening, we spent our time in the living room doing homework, watching TV, exercising, or just talking. We rarely relaxed in our rooms.

Festivals provided some of my happiest moments in Austria; it was awesome to dance on the tables with friends to a live band, waltz and foxtrot with my host father, and hear the bellowing laughter of the entire community. Since I have returned, I have made it a point to contribute more to my family; I help out more in the kitchen, I read in the living room instead of in my room with the door shut, and I try to ask them more about how their days were.

dancing in austria

The sense of community I gained in Austria has also helped me appreciate all the ways in which my home town is unique, so I’m now less likely to complain about it.

What’s next now that you are back home from your study abroad program?

I like to live my life as a series of big events I can look forward to. Last year, I ran a marathon, this year I went to Austria, and next summer I am going on a week-long bike trip and hopefully attending Governor’s School. Beyond that, I will hike the Appalachian Trail and spend a good amount of time volunteering. I plan on being an exchange student in college, this time to a Spanish-speaking country.

Everything I do in life is driven by the desire to travel spiritually, mentally, and physically. Being an exchange student gave me the perfect opportunity to do all three.

views in austria

What did you not know that you wish you had known before studying in Austria?

 The exchange experience is a learn-as-you-go event. The two main things to remember are that being an exchange student is not the same thing as going on vacation and that not everyone is impacted in the same ways.

There will be times that you cry from homesickness, get annoyed with your host family, and wish you had your life-long friends by your side. While you are constantly busy on a two-week vacation and have no time to think about all the things you miss from your home country, a several-months-long experience is quite different. Don’t expect everything to go perfectly and be prepared to go out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, it is worth it.

I had a friend in Austria who was an exchange student from Australia and her time abroad made her want to move to Austria and never go back to Australia. Conversely, my time abroad made me appreciate my hometown more than I had when I initially left. While an exchange experience will rarely impact a person negatively, it is important to remember that the experience will teach different people different things.

It’s OK if you don’t want to move to your host country permanently; the purpose of your trip was not to give you a real estate tour. The purpose of your trip was to teach you things about yourself, your desires, and the outside world that you otherwise might have never known.

friends in austria 2

Want to learn how you can study abroad in Austria?

Check out our high school program page and don’t miss the Feb. 2 deadline for the early bird application discount!


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