Students praise new human rights study abroad program in Vienna

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: That’s what the 15 UChicago students who participated in a new study abroad program in Vienna said of the immersive experience in the philosophy, history and contemporary issues of human rights. The opportunity was made possible through a partnership between the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and the University's Study Abroad Program.

Experiences during the 2015 Spring Quarter included a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and a class taught by the University of Vienna’s Manfred Nowak, who served as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture from 2004 through 2010. “It was amazing, phenomenal,” said Taylor Banholzer, a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics. “I absolutely loved it.”

For the last decade, the University has operated a popular fall study abroad program in Vienna focused on European history. Having those logistics in place smoothed the way for the human rights program. “It really came out of a convergence of the pragmatic opportunity and a sense there would be a lot of interest on the part of students and faculty,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College and the Martin A Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History.

Vienna holds a special place in human rights history, as the site of the United Nations’ 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. The conference created the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which monitors human rights abuses and consults with governments to improve their justice systems, legislative and electoral reforms, and support the rights of women, indigenous peoples and other threatened groups.

Strong interest on campus in human rights issues and UChicago's pre-existing partnership with the University of Vienna helped bring the program together. Students praised the fresh perspective they gained from and the intellectual challenge of the program. “There was a lot of deep thinking going on,” said Henry Blood, a fourth-year majoring in history. “We weren’t just sitting around listening to the professor lecture.”

For Blood and others, opening with the philosophy of human rights provided a strong grounding for tackling historical and contemporary issues. “I was immersed in the issues in ways I never would have thought of when I first applied,” said Robin Ye, a fourth-year majoring in public policy. 

In one assignment students were asked to find something in Vienna and view it through a human rights lens. Ellen Platts, AB’15, was among those who examined the Life Ball, Europe’s largest AIDS fundraiser. Launched in 1993, the Life Ball has grown from an event inside the LGBTQ community to an all-city celebration, when Vienna’s pedestrian crossing signs featured silhouettes of same-sex couples holding hands.

“Vienna is trying to brand itself as a gay-friendly city, but there’s kind of a fraught history there,” said Platts. “It’s still not legal for gay people to get married in Austria.” Platts appreciated how the Life Ball reimagined the imperial culture of Vienna to address this contemporary issue.

For Banholzer, participating in the program has fostered an interest in public service. “Reading Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and seeing where he was after…it was a life-changing experience,” she said. “I will never take human life for granted again.” After Vienna, she spent the summer working in a public defender’s office in rural Missouri, where she drew on her experiences. She is currently applying to law school and wrote her personal statement about visiting Auschwitz.

Platts, who majored in anthropology, is interested in applying human rights in the contexts of archaeology and cultural heritage. “Sites are being looted. That’s problematic for archaeologists but even more problematic for the people whose heritage that is,” she noted. “[The program] gave me vocabulary to talk about cultural rights and archaeological heritage.”