Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
For nearly 20 years, Wilmington College students embraced an international dimension to their WC experience that featured spending a term in Austria as part of the “Vienna Program.” A beloved WC husband/wife team with New Vienna ties ran the unique experience.
Starting in 1969 and running through the couple’s retirement in in 1989, nearly 250 students engaged in a dozen study-abroad terms in Central Europe under the direction of Robert “Bob” and Helga McCoy, who also hosted a trio of alumni tours in Europe.
Between 1963 to 1989, Bob, a member of the WC class of 1942, held the positions of admissions director, alumni director and, ultimately, secretary of the college while Helga taught German as a member of the modern languages faculty from 1966 to 1989.
Bob said Vienna was the focus of the program not only because the McCoys knew the area so well — Helga was born and spent much of her early life in Germany — but because, “It is the ideal location for the American students to become immersed in an older and different culture.”
He mentioned how the “captivating city has kept its charm and sense of history through times of decaying monarchy, war, occupation and postwar financial, cultural and political renaissance.”
With Vienna’s inherent cultural richness, the program emphasized fine arts and the humanities. Indeed, courses offered to the American students often included art, architecture, music and economics by Viennese professors who “moonlighted” from their regular jobs to teach the classes in English.
Helga helped prepare WC students by teaching a basic understanding of the German language and, for some students, an appreciation of advanced German and Austrian literature. Bob taught a course in Austrian history and civilization that provided a “historical underpinning to the students’ emerging understanding of life in Austria.”
During the course of the program, the McCoys arranged weekend trips for WC students to such favorite European locales as Salzburg, Venice and Budapest. Students also were encouraged to travel on their own.
Bob noted the program evolved from the WC students being part of an “American enclave” to where they actually lived among Austrians. The value of the experience was confirmed as evidenced by a number of comments shared by trip participants.
“The Vienna Program built for me a basis of security and confidence to enjoy travel in foreign places for the rest of my life,” said one, while another noted, “The Vienna Program opened me up to the idea of people living in genuinely different ways than we’re accustomed to.” “Our time in Vienna remains not only one of my outstanding college memories, but one of my most outstanding life experiences too,” and “This program affected me like no other educational experience I have ever had,” added two other veterans of the program.
Valerie Kiblinger Martin, class of ‘86, said the McCoys “changed my life” by helping transform her from “a small-town girl with minor dreams” before coming to WC into a confident and inquiring adult with an informed world view and desire to continue learning from new cultures.
“That term in Austria was a turning point for me. I started to see that many things I never thought possible just might be possible,” she said, adding her “wanderlust was set in motion” by the McCoys. “My life would look completely different had I not gone to Vienna. They helped change its trajectory, and for that I will be forever grateful.”
Bob was a Quaker relief worker who conducted reconstruction work in Europe following World War II. He and Helga met in 1949 in Salzburg, Austria, while they both were doing relief work with the American Friends Service Committee. She was a trained translator of English and German.
Helga died in 2003 and Bob in 2011. Their daughter, Pam, returned to the family farm in New Vienna following her father’s passing and she has been engaged in a number of support roles at WC, paramount of which is as a member of the board of trustees.
The couple’s legacy associated with the Vienna Program actually continues to this day. While that study abroad opportunity no longer has the personal touch associated with Bob and Helga McCoy, students are still able to spend semesters in Vienna and other great locales.
Also, the college offers numerous short study tours abroad during the winter, spring and summer breaks.
Randy Sarvis is the senior director of public relations at Wilmington College.