From Vienna, an Angel for Filipino Science Scholars

The PACES officers.

The PACES officers.

In April 2019, Jhun Michael Garcia Aballa graduated cum laude with an engineering degree at Jose Rizal University in Manila. It was a major milestone in attaining his first priority: bringing his OFW father home from Saudi Arabia. Jhun was able to finish college because of a scholarship from the other side of the world—Vienna, Austria—provided by the Philippine-Austria Cultural and Educational Society (PACES).

While many Filipino organizations worldwide offer scholarships for students in the Philippines, PACES has a loftier goal than most: supporting outstanding students in the field of science, technology, education and mathematics (in education parlance, STEM), as a vehicle for development and progress. Scholarship recipients commit themselves to work in the Philippines for a number of years proportional to the duration of the scholarship awarded.

The organization’s president and co-founder is a 30-year IT veteran, Maria Lourdes “Malou” Soto Reininger, who was recruited by then-Philippine Ambassador Zen Collinson-Angara in 2016 as part of a push to make the country’s Austrian mission the “science diplomacy center” of the Philippine Foreign Service.

Malou Reininger heads PACES, which aims to support STEM graduates in the Philippines.

Malou Reininger heads PACES, which aims to support STEM graduates in the Philippines.

In addition to scholarships, PACES holds scientific forums on subjects such as nuclear medicine. It is supported by a stellar all-Filipino board, which includes a geologist at the International Atomic Energy Agency, two members affiliated with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, the president of the Austrian Association of Neurosurgical Nurses, and an alumnus of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management who is now a senior lecturer at a business college in Vienna. 

Malou’s leadership qualities emerged early. She was president of the High School Student Council at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila before she completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of the Philippines (U.P.). At U.P., she was college chairman for the University of the Philippines Student Catholic Action (UPSCA). When the Filipino community in Vienna celebrated the 100th year of Philippine independence, Malou spearheaded the Centennial Celebrations Committee in Austria. She was founding chairman of Babaylan Austria, a support organization for Filipina migrants living and working in Europe. Networking with Babaylan Europe, Babaylan Austria now assists women and crisis centers. For her work in fostering Philippine-Austrian relationships, she was appointed honorary Integration Ambassador by the Austrian Ministry of European, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

If you visit Vienna’s impressive neo-Gothic Rathaus or city hall, you’ll find within its grounds (Rathaus Platz) a catalpa tree planted by the Centennial Celebrations Committee in June 1998. It’s a tangible symbol of the Filipino presence in Austria, starting with Jose Rizal’s Vienna visit with Dr. Ferdinand Blumentritt; a small plaque marks the spot where the national hero stayed, although the original hotel building was destroyed during World War II. Today, some 30,000 Filipinos reside in Austria, according to Philippine Embassy reports, which also counts some 55 Filipino organizations.

Members of the Filipino community in Vienna with the centennial tree in Vienna’s city hall during the 121st anniversary of Philippine Independence. Malou is at the center.

Members of the Filipino community in Vienna with the centennial tree in Vienna’s city hall during the 121st anniversary of Philippine Independence. Malou is at the center.

“When I first arrived in Vienna in the 1970s, people didn’t know what Filipinos were. Thai? Chinese? Japanese? Now, Filipinos are valued workers, employees, and entrepreneurs who are very much part of the overall community. We are seeing a third-generation of Filipinos, the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who started arriving 40 years ago,” says Malou.

The majority of Austria’s Filipinos are nurses who immigrated about the same time as Malou. They’ve brought relatives into the country under a family reunification policy. Malou, too, came to Austria for family reasons.

“I realized early on that I wanted to live and study abroad. In 1975, I went to Chicago to study,” Malou relates. Instead, she was swept into a whirlwind romance with an Austrian native. “It wasn’t part of the plan!”

By October 1976, she was in Vienna learning German and enrolling at Webster University, one of the branches of the American-based global institution. 

The marriage didn’t last. “The rift between cultures was just too wide,” she concludes. She concentrated on raising her only child, Robert, and on her expanding career. After a one-year stint with Trans World Airlines as sales administrator, she entered the service of the U.S. State Department.  At the U.S. embassy in Vienna, she was transposed into a new era. At the start, Malou established, together with US personnel, the Data Processing Center, steadily moving up to become Deputy Information Systems Manager of the Information Systems Center (ISC). “It was an exciting time,” she muses. “From minicomputers, we advanced to LANs (Local Area Networks), into WANs (Wide Area Networks), and finally were virtually connected with Washington, DC via wireless telecommunications.” 

It was a challenge as well. Malou, being female, Asian, and a Filipino among American and Austrian counterparts and colleagues, managed to succeed in a highly competitive, and demanding scientific world. 

ISC had three offices in three embassies: the U.S. Bilateral Embassy; the US Embassy to the United Nations; the Embassy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Soon, Malou and her team were also supporting outlying American embassies in Ljubljana, Bratislava, and Budapest. “Training was vital and rigid.  However, it was fun to match knowledge and wits with my male computer engineers,” she laughs. “Most of the time, I was the only female at a computer conference or training.” 

While at the American Embassy, she met her husband, Heinrich Irmfried Reininger, who was working on the barcode system for Europe and consulting on the data needs of places such as the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the United Nations in Rome, Trieste, and Nairobi.

Malou and Irmfreid Reininger in front of their home in Vienna.

Malou and Irmfreid Reininger in front of their home in Vienna.

The Reiningers are now officially retired. They live on a wide boulevard, the Ringstrasse, across the University of Vienna in a gracious, neo-Renaissance building, which also houses the Consulate of Monaco. They enjoy hosting visiting classmates and friends, taking them to neighborhood wine taverns, their favorite restaurants, and the stunning sights of the epicenter of the former Austria-Hungarian empire, as well as the outlying historical castles, monasteries, and beautiful alpine surroundings.

Sometimes, they attend affairs with guest lists that include European nobility. Irmfried comes from the aristocratic Wallernstaedt house from Prague, but does not bear a title because honorifics like these are not allowed in Austria. Malou, however, wears a ring with a family crest that identifies her as a member of the family.

Malou chats with Karl Hapsburg-Lothringen (left), heir of the family that once ruled the Austria-Hungarian empire. After World War I, the empire was dissolved and the Hapsburgs were exiled from Austria. The ban against entering the country has been lifted, but royal titles are not officially recognized in either Austria and Hungary.

Malou chats with Karl Hapsburg-Lothringen (left), heir of the family that once ruled the Austria-Hungarian empire. After World War I, the empire was dissolved and the Hapsburgs were exiled from Austria. The ban against entering the country has been lifted, but royal titles are not officially recognized in either Austria and Hungary.

Both are part of the Saint Augustine Church choir. “It gets very stressful!” says this former alto from the University of the Philippines Concert Chorus. St. Augustine’s Sunday and feast day high masses are renowned for concerts with professional singers and orchestra, and feature famous composers’ religious compositions. “One Sunday we sang Mozart’s Krönungsmesse, which is beautiful, but challenging. Entrance is free, but whatever you can donate is welcome to cover costs of the professional musicians, while we who are members of the St. Augustine Chorakademie sing on a voluntary basis.” 

Malou and visiting classmate Ronie Nieva on the hills above Vienna.

Malou and visiting classmate Ronie Nieva on the hills above Vienna.

Malou is good at merging her volunteer activities. In addition to PACES’ receptions, birthday celebrations and diplomatic dinners organized to publicize its work and solicit support, she has made a few of St. Augustine’s karaoke sessions as fundraisers. In 2017, PACES launched its Pledge#10forSTEM, a campaign to attract donors who will give 10 Euros (the price of 3 cups of mélange in Vienna) a month over a one- to three-year period. PACES scholarships amount to P300,000 a year per student for tuition, room and board, books, transportation, and a small stipend. For more information and to donate, go to www.paces-stem.org.


Pepi Nieva

Pepi Nieva

Pepi Nieva is a writer and public relations professional who lives in Honolulu and Portland, Oregon. She started her career in tourism in the Philippines and travel remains on top of her to do list.


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