by Eva Dean Folkert
This May in Vienna, Austria — home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Habsburg Monarchy, a famous boys choir and wiener schnitzel — Hope College volleyball student-athletes Jenna VanderLaan and Katie Rietberg took in lavish amounts of new-to-them Old World sights. Rarely did they think about volleyball. It's not that they were trying to avoid it; it's just that they had so many other things to do. The European capital is a cultural charmer after all, so naturally the two gravitated to cozy coffee houses, imperial history and jaw-dropping architecture.
For three weeks the two Flying Dutch abandoned their sport (for the most part) and their comfort zones (entirely) and immersed themselves in the City of Music while enrolled in Hope's Vienna Summer School, a 62-year-old off-campus-study gem. VanderLaan and Rietberg exuberantly welcomed an adventure in a country where giants of music, art, history, and psychology (Sigmund Freud also worked in Vienna) once roamed. It actually came as easy to them as pass-set-spike.
Admittedly, the language was a challenge (neither speaks German) but not a barrier; the food was unique but (usually) delicious; and, the people were kind even if not overly friendly. VanderLaan and Rietberg embraced it all — the good with the not-as-good, the new with the old — and loved on it. International education had always been on their Hope bucket list. If the world is indeed its own magic, as Japanese writer Shunryu Suzuki once wrote, then Vienna became one epicenter of enlightenment for them.
"Everything we did in Vienna, whether it was in class or just exploring the city, helped me gain a better perspective of the world and how I see myself in it," says junior VanderLaan, the Flying Dutch's defensive specialist who hails from Grand Rapids.
"The experience stretched me," adds senior, Holland-native Rietberg who plays outside hitter, "and it helped me expand who I am."
Both special education majors, the two women enrolled for their Vienna May Term separately. That they happened to be on the same trip was a serendipitous bonus. VanderLaan's class of choice in Vienna was titled "Empires of the Mind," a cultural heritage option in Hope's general education program. In it, she dug into the history of the Habsburg Empire and then studied it before the vast façade of Schönbrunn Palace, a quintessential Viennese landmark. "Some of my friends and I from our class went to the palace lawn and did homework there," VanderLaan recalls. "It was a little unreal studying with a 1500-room palace overlooking us."
For Rietberg, studying "Austrian Art and Architecture," a class that satisfied her fine arts requirement, gave her a better understanding of expression and the creative process. Prior to her Vienna experience, she didn't consider herself an "art person." "But I definitely have a greater appreciation for art now," Rietberg admits, "especially as it relates to my major and recognizing that some of my students communicate best through art."
Vienna may have brought out some of the deepest liberal arts growth for VanderLaan and Rietberg, and to head coach Becky Schmidt, that is no surprise. Of the two, she says, whenever their best is needed, they both step up to be players and people who want to contribute and grow. "Interestingly, the greatest gift that they both bring to our court is their versatility," explains Schmidt. "Jenna is capable of excelling in any defensive position, and Katie's greatest strength as an outside hitter is her ability to hit many different angles. Their go-with-the-flow attitude helps them be successful no matter what situation they find themselves in."
With most of their volleyball season ahead of them — Hope is ranked 20th in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Associaton Poll and co-hosts the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Preview Tournament this weekend at DeVos Fieldhouse — VanderLaan's and Rietberg's memories and lessons from Vienna are not too far behind. Even though they didn't volley-ball much while there (drop-in play in a Vienna public park was rare and welcome when spotted), the two women still found ways to make their Viennese experience apply not just to their sport but to life in general. Co-captain Rietberg summarizes that application like this:
"In Vienna, we had to figure out how to be comfortable in the uncomfortable, how to live in an unknown city for three weeks. Coach Schmidt talks a lot about being okay with failing. For me, that's very uncomfortable; I don't like doing that at all. But when I think about how to bring that mindset to the volleyball court, I think back to Vienna and how I found a way to be comfortable when things may have not been going just right. It gave me a greater appreciation for the unity on our volleyball team… and at Hope too."