HuntSpeak: Talking Research and Penn with Victoria Mayer

By Mariana Velasco

Who is Victoria? I am a senior at the Huntsman Program targeting German, originally from Vienna, Austria. My Wharton concentrations are Management and Business Economics & Public Policy, and I am also a Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Wharton Scholar. At Penn, I conducted research, worked as a TA for the BEPP department, and was involved with the International Affairs Association (Intercol), competing on the National Model UN Circuit. 

Tell me more about your target language and your international experiences. Absolutely! Although I speak it at home, I chose German as my target language as I always enjoyed German literature and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in PhD courses in Penn’s German department. Being the only undergraduate student among much more experienced  PhD students was an incredible chance to go beyond my own understanding of the language and to connect with the historical and political significance of German literature. I even ended up being awarded the C.F. Lauber Prize for Outstanding Achievements in German Literature my freshman year! 

In terms of international experiences, I had the opportunity to be the only Huntsman student to study abroad in Australia for a semester. There, I really enjoyed immersing myself in a very distinct local culture, exploring Australia and a few other countries as a solo-traveler, and, of course, getting the chance to meet a lot of new people from a variety of backgrounds. To this day, I am very fond of the memories from my study abroad program, stay in touch with the friends I made, and will always be grateful for having had that opportunity. 

You mentioned that you really enjoy traveling. How has your experience in the Huntsman Program contributed to your travels? I love traveling and exploring new cultures! I have been fortunate enough to always travel a lot and see interesting places, first with my family and later alone or with friends. Since joining the Huntsman Program, however, I’ve been able to make friends from all over the world and explore cultures from a completely different perspective. Just within my inner circle, my friends come from more than a dozen countries and six different continents. Before the pandemic, I was able to visit a few of them in their home countries and spend every single break or long weekend traveling with them. A few highlights from those travels include going cattle herding in the Dominican Republic, hitchhiking through Cuba, camping in Patagonia in Chile, paragliding over a glacier in New Zealand, swimming in waterfalls in Costa Rica, seeing the horse-races in Hong Kong, and exploring the remnants of WWII artifacts in Berlin.

Whenever we were not traveling, we would spend every single afternoon in the Huntsman Lounge, where long discussions about anything from Middle Eastern politics to the correct way to prepare a Schnitzel appeared on the daily agenda and an animated exchange of cultural experiences would occur at all times. It was through those conversations, that I was able to learn more about the world than I could have ever imagined and that I was able to gain a new understanding of just how complex and interconnected the modern world is. To me, being able to be friends with people from such a diverse set of backgrounds is a true blessing and I cannot wait to continue to learn about their perspectives, experiences, and opinions, compare and contrast them with my own, and gain a more accurate understanding of both similarities and differences of cultures from around the globe. 

Other than traveling, what do you like to do in your free time? I have been seeing a lot of cooking in your Instagram stories. Yes! I recently discovered that passion for cooking. For the year 2021, I have challenged myself to cook traditional dishes from 52 different countries, attempting a recipe from one new country every week. Since international travel has been put on a hold, this is my way of exploring at least a small aspect of different cultures through my culinary journey. In my opinion, food has such a significant impact around the world and serves as a deep-level reflection on cultures and their values. It has, however, also given me the perfect excuse to reach out to friends from different countries and connect with them by asking for family recipes, and sometimes even cooking together. Now that I am at home in Vienna, I have been going to the local market frequently, which has been great as many of the recipes my friends have sent me require specialty ingredients or spices that are difficult to find in Europe; however, thanks to “Naschmarkt”, I now have access to all of them and nothing is keeping me from becoming a masterchef anymore – I still have so many new recipes to try!  

What are some of the opportunities that you have enjoyed the most at Penn? Something that I would love to highlight for younger students are research opportunities at Penn. With our professors, we really have access to some of the world’s most renowned experts, who have incredible knowledge and connections in their respective fields and are always excited to help students explore their research interests. Many are looking for research assistants or would even volunteer to help students as advisors on their independent projects. Because of their support, I was able to apply to and win the SIRE grant twice and received substantial amounts of funding to conduct and publish my own research over the summer. I also got offered several opportunities as Teaching Assistant, and found mentors to work with me on very unique projects for both my Honors Thesis and my Huntsman Capstone Research. 

Even if you are not interested in pursuing research, I highly recommend that you take advantage of your connection to our professors regardless, come to them with questions, and pick their brains every now and then. Ever since freshman year, I have made sure to connect with my professors outside of class and four years later, I am happy to report that I have maintained very good relationships with many of them to the point that I know I can always reach out to them. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people miss out on the opportunity to connect with their professors as they only view them as instructors within the context of a particular subject and fail to see the incredibly kind and highly interesting humans behind the teacher role. Throughout college, my professors have supported me not only academically but as mentors in different ways, and it is thanks to their continued support and advice that I was able to achieve all that I have.   

Do you have any recommendations in particular for how to approach professors? I would say, first of all, show that you are an engaged student. Go to class, be present, ask questions. I like to email a professor after an interesting lecture with a few questions or attend Office Hours for that purpose. More often than not they are happy to share with you some of their research, or send you more papers to read, so you can do some independent learning. In some cases, they might actually even be able to connect you with alumni who have gone on to apply the course concepts in a real life context or professors at different universities who specialize in the question you are interested in. Overall, I want to really emphasize the message that our professors are genuinely interested in assisting our development, both as scholars and as people. They are one of the greatest resources in Penn’s very vast network, and I really encourage everyone to explore this work, take advantage of the connections, and ultimately, go out into the world and do their part to strengthen the Penn network even more.

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