UNO’s International Summer Program at 40
Many past participants of The University of New Orleans-Innsbruck International Summer Program share a similar experience: life-altering events.
Dr. Ron Coe found a wife; Debbie LeMaire Coe found Prince Charming. Teacher Angela Aubry discovered a sunny world to share and artist Carol Peebles caught the travel bug.
In Austria in 1988, a July shower brought Ron and Debbie Coe together, the first moment of a 26-year marriage. “She asked if I wanted to share her umbrella,” Coe says. “Little did I know I would share the rest of my life with her.”
UNO’s Innsbruck program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Founded in 1976 by history Professor Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, now president of the National World War II Museum, the program’s students travel to Austria each summer to experience European adventures and to take classes in fields such as geology, business, music and languages. More than 10,000 faculty, students and staff have participated, says Director Irene Ziegler.
“Students get so close,” Ziegler says. “They study together, travel together. It really connects them.”
In some cases, those travels spread like radio waves to others. Aubry attended the program in 1978, the only black student participating that year. Then a 19-year-old UNO art student, she yearned to see the masters and the Sistine Chapel with her own eyes; today she teaches English to incarcerated boys in Jefferson Parish. In class, she draws on that summer abroad to convince her students that they, too, can push their current boundaries. She calls this storytelling, “planting seeds of hope.”
One tale she relates began with her and five other students visiting a casino somewhere on the French-Italian border the evening before they were departing for a new destination. Later, they missed the return train. Stranded in darkness with no way back to their hotel, they hitched a ride on the back-end of a truck, sitting in an open-aired bed of hay among metal containers of milk. The milkman provided fresh milk, cheese and bread, and chauffeured them to where they belonged in time for their morning departure.
When she tells this tale to her students, boys raised in more dangerous times, they ask, “Weren’t you afraid?”
Those questions remind Aubry of neighborhood friends in 1978 who questioned her desire to go to Innsbruck. She says they were afraid for her. They asked, “Two months alone with all those white people?”
LEFT: Ronald Coe and Debbie Lemaire (front) met on the UNO-Innsbruck Summer School in 1988. They got married shortly after and now have three children. MIDDLE: Angela Aubry, an alumna of the UNO-Innsbruck Summer School 1978, took a weekend trip from Innsbruck to Amsterdam. Photo courtesy of Angela Aubry RIGHT: A group of students participates in a field trip, hiking to the top of one of the many mountains surrounding Innsbruck, the “heart of the Alps.” Photo courtesy of the UNO Division of International Education
She ignored them, she says, and after returning to New Orleans she saw they were, “still stuck in their little worlds and there was a bigger world for me.”
Carol Peebles, a UNO graduate who now teaches drawing, also credits the Innsbruck program with exposing her to, “different ways of life.” A native of New Orleans, Peebles said she was accustomed to her hometown’s laid-back attitude about cleanliness. “New Orleans is messy,” Peebles says. “In Austria, you can eat off the streets. I’d never known places like that. It makes you realize how your culture is.”
The program also led her to take a yearlong trip to Denmark in 1990 after her fourth summer in Innsbruck, where she served as a student worker. “It was a life-expanding experience,” she says.
Fast forward to summer 2015. About 270 students from 29 regional colleges travel to Austria this month to take at least two classes chosen from 41 program offerings. Each will take discipline-related field trips to places such as a Munich BMW factory, a glacier and the birthplace of Mozart, Ziegler says.
Ziegler, an Austrian, met her own husband by way of UNO when she came to New Orleans to obtain a master’s degree. Such connections are frequent, she says, because about 70 Austrian exchange students attend UNO each year as part of an agreement with the University of Innsbruck. After Innsbruck became a sister city in 1995, the town started its own New Orleans-style jazz fest below the picturesque snow-capped Alps.
Innsbruck’s multi-colored, river-fronted landscape was the backdrop of the Coe courtship that eventually expanded to a family of five and a medical career for Ron. He says his marriage to Debbie five months after they met sparked a determination to become a physician. Today, he’s Livingston Parish’s coroner.
Back in 1988, he was a financially struggling UNO English major who lucked out when he won a scholarship to go to Innsbruck. Debbie remembers the beginning of their romance somewhat differently than Ron, but that’s because she was smitten on UNO’s campus weeks before they connected in Innsbruck, she says. After some fleeting exchanges that Ron doesn’t remember, Debbie says she grasped an opportunity to get closer to him when she saw him standing in the rain outside the site of Innsbruck’s former winter Olympics. “When I shared that umbrella,” she says, “I just went cha-ching – I got him!”“We literally have a Cinderella life,” Ron Coe says, “the stuff of fairy-tales.”