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The Reluctant Empress and the Fervent Researcher

Austro-Hungarian Empress Elizabeth, at her 1867 coronation as queen of Hungary.

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 28, 2017) — It is not often that a researcher, especially a student researcher, can have a personal insight into a subject that lived two centuries ago. Sonya Helen Herbach, a senior History major, has that kind perception about the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire’s Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837 – 1898).

In a paper she presented in September in Madrid at the international conference, “Kings and Queens 6: In the Shadow of the Throne,” Herbach revealed that the beauteous wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I — sometimes called the “lonely” or “reluctant empress” — probably had many psychological troubles beneath her lovely exterior.

In delving into these mental aspects of Elizabeth, Herbach combined her studies in her minor, psychology, with her major. “This combination allowed me to look at the symptoms that Sisi presented during her life and come up with a diagnosis for what she may have suffered from during her life. My conclusion was that Sisi had a combination of agoraphobia and anorexia nervosa, and that she also suffered from an anxiety disorder.”

Herbach, an Albany native, has had own battles with illness and depression. At childhood, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and she suffered during her teenage years from a combination of depression, anxiety and personal loss. “I found myself unable to complete a full day of high school after only a month into my ninth grade year,” she said.

Sonya Herbach
Sonya Helen Herbach

In the spring of 2016, when a student at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) she began to get infections from her insulin sites, and in fall 2016, as a UAlbany junior, a fall resulted in a brain injury that remains an everyday problem. A kidney infection that evolved into sepsis added to her physical difficulties.

Given these trials, her progress and successes have been all the more remarkable.

Her parents found a new prep school for her years ago, one which allowed her to choose her own hours, classes and workload. “However, I felt that I needed to be learning more and that I needed more of a challenge than I was getting,” she said. She was able to take classes at HVCC, receiving concurrently a graduate equivalency and associate degrees at what would have been her original high school graduation time. She then entered UAlbany as a junior.

Here, she revealed to her professors the distinctive talents of the natural-born researcher — one who liked presenting her results. “All of which pointed me in the direction that despite my original interest in psychology, becoming a college-level teacher in history may be the best track for me to follow,” she said. Aware of her physical challenges, her professors have allowed Herbach to do much of her class work at home and take several independent studies.

Her first presentation of the Elizabeth of Austria paper was last spring at the UAlbany Undergraduate Research Conference. She said that made the Madrid presentation, where she refined her paper, an enjoyable experience and “not terribly different” from her spring presentation — including the number attending her talk and the intellectual level of questions she was asked.

“Still, I was the youngest presenter, and I was a bit nervous,” she said. “But everyone was so kind, amazing, and knowledgeable and fun! I was also blessed to have my family with me all the time . . . And Madrid is a marvelous city!”

Herbach credits the work and attention she has received at UAlbany with allowing her to advance academically at noteworthy speed. She will start toward her master’s degree in January, with her eventual goal a Ph.D. in European history.

Prominent among her supporters has been full-time Lecturer Ileana Camelia Lenart. “She has been an amazing mentor to me,” said Herbach. “Over the last year of working together she has helped me to follow my academic ambitions, both by helping me get into the Kings and Queens conference, and by supporting me with individual studies, which have helped me get work thorough my brain injury immeasurably.”

Herbach’s suggestion to other young students having health, family, or mental well-being problems is “to make sure you make your problems known to the people you love and trust, to your teachers,” and to stay involved — and working.

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