“I like experiencing different cultures"

by Catalina Myers  |   

In 2006, UAA alumnus Quenton Nelson, B.S. Geology '08 and B.A. Languages (German) '18, took the ultimate road trip from Texas to Alaska with four of his buddies. It was the last hurrah before the longtime high school friends parted ways to start their young adult lives, and for Nelson, it was one of those life experiences that changed everything. He fell in love with the North. So much so that he decided to attend school at UAA. 

UAA alumnus Quenton Nelson, B.S. Geology '08, B.A. Languages '18, is the recipient of a US Teaching Assistantship in Austria, and will put his languages degree to the ultimate test this fall. (Photo by James Evans/ University of Alaska Anchorage)

It's been more than 10 years since Nelson moved to Alaska to earn his geology degree at UAA, trading in hot Texas summers for milder ones. After graduating in 2008, he worked for UAA Parking Services before landing a job with a local environmental consulting agency, combining his love for the outdoors and travel into the ultimate job. But, he still felt there was something missing - a bucket list item that had been a desire since his childhood: learning to speak German.

And this was no ordinary pursuit, like picking up a German phrasebook from the library or ordering a program online; Nelson wanted to fully immerse himself in the language and culture. Until he looked into UAA's languages program, there hadn't been an opportunity to pursue this lifelong goal. So he went back to school to earn an entirely different bachelor's degree.

A lifelong dream

"When I was a little kid, I just liked the way that it [German] sounded," said Nelson, explaining that sounds have always been important to him, especially when it comes to languages. In particular, German spoke to him in a way that music might inspire a musician. "The only exposure that I'd had to it really was in movies and typically, it's portrayed as an angry sounding language, but that's not what I heard. To me, it doesn't sound angry."

Nelson worked full time while going to school to earn a second bachelor's degree. "It was a lot of work and it took a long time," he said. "I was basically working on it from 2009 until 2018. It's definitely been busy because I work 40 hours a week during the school year, and in the summers more, plus I went to school twice a week with homework on top of that." In addition, the requirements for a science degree versus an art degree were completely different, and Nelson had to complete several general education requirements for an arts degree. 

It was a slow grind, but Nelson kept at it and all his hard work paid off when he was recently awarded the US Teaching Assistantship (USTA) to Austria, a division of the Fulbright Austria program, which every year recruits more than 140 recent American college graduates to live, teach and attend school in Austria.  

"I can speak fairly well," said Nelson, who's reluctant to say that he's fluent, although, he's been complimented by locals on his language skills when traveling abroad in Germany. "Fluent is kind of a strong word, and I feel like languages have a lot of vocabulary and you'll always be learning new things."

Nelson has traveled to Germany three times since 2013. His first trip he did a bike tour exploring the Rhine and Mosel valleys, in the wine regions of Germany. His second trip was more academic focused and he spent a semester at the University of Tübingen taking literature classes taught in German. His third trip was for work, doing a consulting project on the U.S. Air Force base there. 

So for Nelson's fourth European stint, he's heading to Austria, which will yield a brand new stamp in his well-used passport. 

The Scholarship

Nelson learned about the USTA scholarship from UAA's previous recipient, who'd received the scholarship the year before. The scholarship is organized and operated by Fulbright Austria, and Nelson will work as an assistant English teacher in Oberpullendorf, a village in eastern Austria. He'll leave in early September and return to Alaska sometime in May. 

"I really like German culture and I've spent a decent amount of time in Germany, so I'm really interested to live in another German-speaking country," Nelson said. "Austria also has a different German dialect, so hopefully I'll be there long enough to get a decent grasp on it. And also, it's going to be a great opportunity to speak in German because there are only so many ways you can improve by taking classes and the limited spaces where you can actually speak."

Nelson said he's excited to put his skills to the test with locals because there's a huge difference between speaking the language with people whose first language is English versus those speaking in their native language. 

"It's much faster and there are thicker accents," said Nelson, who said being there will require to think more on the fly. "Sometimes when you first get there it takes a little bit for the language to register."

Nelson is grateful for the opportunity to travel abroad through the USTA scholarship program and says that his UAA languages degree helped him achieve a lifelong dream.

"The German program here is really good and the head of the department, Professor Masanovic, is passionate about teaching German," said Nelson. "She really does all that she can so that we have what we need to help us in our learning. "

Outside the box 

"Everything in Europe is so much older than here," said Nelson. He's excited to wander the streets enjoying the architecture, something he appreciates when visiting across the pond. "It will be neat to experience that."

Nelson is also excited to trace his ancestral roots from Hungary, where his great grandmother was from. He will be living and teaching on the border of Austria and Hungary, and plans on venturing across the border to learn more about and experience the culture where she lived.

"I like experiencing different cultures, it gives you new perspectives and helps you understand other people," Nelson said, explaining that he thinks traveling abroad is important for anyone at any stage of life to broaden their understanding of the world. "It's easy to have preconceived ideas about other cultures and think your own is the best, but if you travel you might think differently."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement 

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