STUDY & RESEARCH
THE STUDENT GUIDE
Back on Track ONE LIFE TO LIVE
SO MUCH TO LEARN
TIME TO LOOK AGAIN
Students embark on bold paths amid the pandemic
Foreigners discover preparatory programs
The world eyes Germany’s culture of remembrance
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IN THIS ISSUE 1 BACK ON TRACK
Our cover was shot alongside Hamburg’s Alster River, a short trot from ZEIT headquarters
Photos: Daniel Feistenauer (cover), Sebi Berens (this page)
Left to right: Anna-Lena Scholz (Editorial Advisor), Deborah Steinborn (Editor-in-Chief), Julia Steinbrecher (Art and Photo Director), Manuel Hartung (Publisher), Lina Göttsch (Editorial Assistant). Not shown: Madeleine Pollard (Assistant Editor)
There’s an upside to loneliness. When ZEIT Germany went to press in late June, researchers had just revealed that, throughout the pandemic, university students in Germany were by far the loneliest subgroup among young people aged 14 to 29. Yet these students – from around the corner and across the world – drew lessons for life from the crisis, and they did so at warp speed. Some strengthened ties to their peers. Others helped strangers in need. And more than a few decided overnight that it was time for a life change. All this transpired while campuses were closed. Every story counts. Here are a few. Enjoy the read! The ZEIT Germany Team ZEIT, a German weekly newspaper, covers education and more. ZEIT Germany‘s print edition is available via the network of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Goethe-Institut, and the Federal Foreign Office, among others. A digital version is available at www.zeit.de/germany
4 SOCIAL STUDIES
The pandemic changed the way students learn and live 14 FAST FACTS
Higher education at a glance, from quirkiest master’s degrees to stats on students with kids 16 ON THE MONEY
The cut-rate cost of studying in German-speaking countries 18 BRAVE NEW WORLD
Sanaa to Hannover, Youngstown to Munich: two daring foreigners in uncharted territory 22 FAR FROM HOME
How students in a traveling program adapted to lockdown 24 SPREADING THE WORDS
A British comedy writer’s take on Germany’s latest lingo 32 DEFINING VOCABULARY
Key terms to help you cut through all that university jargon
34 “NIMBLE AND EFFICIENT”
TU Dresden’s new rector, herself a return migrant, on what drew her back to her homeland 40 MONEY FOR NOTHING
A grant to “do nothing” draws eye-popping proposals from all around the world 45 MASTHEAD
The staff. Plus: distribution partners and further details 47 KOLLEG-BOUND
How some internationals prepare for university life 50 PRESENTING THE PAST
German universities examine (and re-examine) their Nazi years 56 THE NETWORK
An alliance in Mainz helped to put BioNTech and others on the map 62 TAKING ROOT
Foreign students, past and present, share life hacks for Germany 66 WORD PLAY
A crossword puzzle for the bilingual student brain 3
Malin Grüninger tends to the garden at the ESA dorm in Kaiserslautern
Sociology student Marcus Kappel saw the lockdown turn ESA into a kind of lab
Call it the Covid-19 School of Life. How pandemic conditions brought extraordinary learning experiences to university students from near and far BY DEBOR AH STEINBORN PHOTOS VICTORIA JUNG, MAR ZENA SKUBATZ, JULIA SELLMANN
When Covid-19 hit Germany in March 2020, it affected all of the roughly 13,000 students who were enrolled at Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. Lecture halls, labs, and libraries emptied out. Those who could, went home. By early April, students were few and far between, and dorms felt hollow. But Marcus Kappel stayed put at the edge of the Palatinate Forest. He and 19 other students, including two international enrollees, hunkered down in their student dorm, Energiesparende Studierendenwohnheimsarchitektur (ESA). The complex, about a five-minute walk from campus, was designed back in the 1980s as a greenhouse of sorts; its acronym stands for energy-saving architecture. And something curious happened. The dorm mates started to learn more rather than less – from each other. As the weeks went on, they cooked elaborate meals together and ate in a communal kitchen, grew new vegetables in the rooftop garden, spruced up
Some students saw the pandemic as an opportunity in disguise
The ESA students adopted Mulrich, a stray cat
common living areas indoors and out, talked and laughed. They even went through several coronavirus outbreaks together. All the while, they were learning a lot from the surreal experience of “not going to school” together. “Through the pandemic, we came to appreciate the value of what we had,” Kappel says. With a fig tree in the foyer and a tree house out back, ESA’s living quarters may be unusual. But in many places around Germany, students experienced learning in a whole new way, and for some, this brought life-changing lessons. But first came the exodus. According to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), of the 300,000 foreign university students registered in Germany in the spring of 2020, more than a quarter headed home when the pandemic hit. A general study by the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies found that Covid-19 drove 9 percent of all university students in the country to move back in with their parents. In Kaiserslautern, according to the local student union, student housing was at just 70 percent capacity throughout 2020 and in the first half of 2021. As campuses shuttered, courses moved online, and in-person meetings with professors and administrators became impossible, students who stayed on site were more often than not left to their own devices. But that did not bring learning to a standstill. No matter where they were based – whether in dorms, shared apartments, or their childhood bedrooms – students from Germany and abroad did their coursework “at home.” And, as one exceptional semester turned into two, then three, some students at least started to see the pandemic as an opportunity in disguise. With the right mindset (and a bit of dumb luck), university students were able to experience life lessons that they might not have otherwise had. Kappel, a master’s student in integrative social sciences, practiced viewing Germany’s first lockdown with a sociologist’s eye. “It was fascinating to see the dynamics evolve as the weeks went by,” he says. It was like living in a laboratory. On Day One, when campus shut down and classes were canceled indefinitely, a sense of euphoria struck. The hectic balancing act of studying, working parttime jobs, and socializing was over for now. Kappel recalls how he and his fellow residents at ESA embraced the time off. “We could all just breathe out a bit.” By Day 14, everyone had binge-watched enough Netflix to be a little bored, he says. And by Week 14? The advantage of living with good company in a spacious biotope had become more than clear. Home-improvement, art, and gardening projects were in full swing. An art student joined forces with
Photos: Victoria Jung
Armenian national Anna Avagyan lives at ESA in Kaiserslautern
Huijun Li from Kunming, China, studies statistics at HU Berlin
Photos: Marzena Skubatz
an engineering student to design lamps out of old computer monitors and adorn doors with keyboard keys. Others built the tree house. Maybe they cut a digital class or two, but so what? “We had a tremendous added value right here in our dorm,” says Kappel. “We weren’t sitting alone in front of a computer screen in a 16-square-meter room. We could just walk down the hall to see what the architecture student was up to, or what the physicist was working on. Corona was the catalyst for a lot of creativity, a lot of interpersonal exchanges that we otherwise wouldn’t have had time for.” For Malin Grüninger, another sociology student living at ESA, the pandemic “raised our awareness of how unique our living quarters are.” The dorm’s makeup stayed fairly constant throughout the pandemic; one student graduated and another moved right in to replace her, but no one moved home to their parents. “Sure, we got on each other’s nerves at times,” Grüninger says. “But we grew and learned about ourselves through the experience, and we supported each other. We are like a family.” As in any crisis, Covid-19 has magnified what works well in the world – like the group dynamics at ESA – and what doesn’t. Many students have struggled. The German youth researchers Klaus Hurrelmann and Simon Schnetzer conducted several in-depth studies of how young people aged 14 to 29 coped in the pandemic. They found that university-level students suffered the most loss and anxiety. “Compared to schoolchildren and trainees, the students reported deteriorations of their situation to a much higher degree,” notes the June 2021 study, “Jugend und Corona in Deutschland” (Youth and Corona in Germany). In this subgroup, more than two thirds of respondents said in the spring of 2021 that their connections to fellow students had suffered. Almost two thirds described being less motivated to learn. Half said their study and working conditions had worsened and that work-life balance and the quality of education were down. Schnetzer and Hurrelmann call these effects “dramatic.” Resilience is key to facing any prolonged crisis, including in a university setting. Sometimes that strength can be found in a community; at others it comes from within. Huijun Li and her flatmate Julia Wieser needed some of both. For Li, 24, a second-semester master’s student in statistics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), the need for resilience was painfully apparent even before Covid-19 reached Germany. In January 2020, the Chinese national watched anxiously as her home city of Kunming went into lockdown. “It was hard,”
Julia Wieser, an Austrian student at Charité, on her Berlin balcony
As in any crisis, the pandemic has magnified what works well - and what doesn’t
she says. On top of worrying about family and friends at home, she saw negative attitudes escalate in some parts of the world into full-blown anti-Asian racism. She felt safe in Berlin, however, a city whose diversity and international identity had already won her over. Li first enrolled at HU in 2016 to earn a BA in business administration. Before the pandemic, her student life was filled with parties, art exhibits, and flirting across the desks of the university library. “There was always something going on,” she says. But with the hard lockdown four years later, Li’s large Wohngemeinschaft (WG), or shared flat, on the 14th floor of a high-rise turned claustrophobic. She could still watch the sunsets glinting off Berlin’s fabled landmark, the Siegessäule, out of the vast kitchen windows. But the atmosphere inside became strained. If online learning was stressful, exams were even worse. Li and her three flatmates at the time had never been the best of friends, but tensions with one flatmate in particular boiled over during the lockdown. Passive-aggressive messages popped up 9
on the group chat about things like trash sorting, closing the fridge door properly, and who could use the kitchen to study or work out, and when. “I look back on it now and it’s partially because we were so stressed by the situation and having to stay home all the time,” she says. “This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.” The circumstances helped Li, who is a sociable person, get used to enjoying the company of smaller groups; she joined friends for study sessions to break the monotony of online lectures and seminars. To Li’s relief, the pressures eased as the months passed. One flatmate moved out of the WG and a spot became available; the dynamic improved when Julia Wieser, a 23-year-old Austrian medical student, moved in. According to wg-gesucht.de, a platform for finding shared apartments, listings for rooms in WGs across Germany declined by 10 percent during the pandemic. After months of renting an expensive apartment (and even a hotel room when the overpowering scent of her neighbor’s weed habit threatened to disrupt her virtual exams), Wieser was thrilled to join Li’s WG in April 2021; the two soon became friends.
Wieser moved to Berlin in September 2020. She hails from a sleepy Tyrolian village, so it took some time to get used to the city’s “dirtiness” and urban sprawl. For her, Berlin’s biggest draw was the Modellstudiengang Medizin, the “model program” at Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin, which emphasizes hands-on medical training. Unfortunately her first semester started on November 2, the day Berlin went into a new round of lockdown. Apart from a two-week first aid course at the hospital, Wieser’s first semester was entirely online. With hands-on learning and personal exchange severely restricted, Wieser took matters into her own hands. She met other students by joining Charité’s Fachschaftsinitiative (FSI), or student
council initiative. With around 70 members, the FSI organized digital meetings and workshops every two weeks through the long winter. Wieser met with some of her new friends in person as well. Working twice a week as a Studentische Mitarbeiterin, or student assistant, at Charité’s cardiology outpatient study clinic also helped compensate for what the pandemic had drained from her studies. It gave her the chance to deal directly with patients and tapped into her empathy for people in medical need. In March 2021 an intense one-month hospital internship back home in the Austrian Alps helped fuel that empathy even more. A wave of infections in the region had transformed the cardiology department to which she’d been assigned at Landeskrankenhaus Natters into a coronavirus station on her second day. “It was really intense. There were people dying every few days,” she recalls. Shattering as it was, the experience taught her to talk compassionately to patients who were cut off from their families. Back in Berlin in her new digs, Wieser has since warmed to the graffiti-filled city. She didn’t come to town to party in the first place, and the pandemic has
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only confirmed her chosen course of study. Above all, it has taught an inestimable lesson about the human connection at the heart of the medical profession. Experiences like Wieser’s aren’t an anomaly. Even though students lost much of their immediate infrastructure, many found at least some substitutes in society at large. According to a Bertelsmann Foundation study of the general population, Germans of all ages saw their sense of general solidarity grow early on in the pandemic. Right before Covid-19 struck (in March 2020), four out of ten respondents said people in Germany didn’t care about their fellow countrymen. Just three months later, only two in ten felt that way. In the same study, almost half of all respondents aged 25 to 39 reported helping a neighbor in the first few months of the pandemic. Facebook users founded “#Coronahilfe Hamburg,” and similar support groups popped up elsewhere. Nebenan.de, a platform where people can offer and request neighborly help, reported a spike in participants. In Baden-Württemberg, Rosanna Degaetano, a BA student in international business at Hochschule
Furtwangen University in the Black Forest town of VillingenSchwenningen, lived out the lockdown in an international dorm, where she helped students from abroad cope with homesickness. An Italian-German who grew up in the state, Degaetano soon saw how lucky she was to know the lay of the land. During high school she had worked at Lidl, the discount supermarket chain, and she applied there again at the start of the pandemic, just as the demand for workers jumped. Soon she had a job near campus. “It was a life-saver for me,” she says. “I was studying digitally on my own in my room, but I could go out to the store a few times a week and encounter people. I realized that having this local connection really
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made a difference.” That realization in turn fueled her empathy for her dorm mates. At the international dorm, a former medical center, eight of the 16 students on Degaetano’s floor moved home when the lockdown started; many from abroad were stuck. “We have people on our floor from Cameroon, India, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam, and they just couldn’t get home,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy for us Europeans, but I felt really sorry for those from farther away.” As holidays traditionally celebrated in Germany came and went – from Easter that first spring to German Unity Day in October – a dorm mate from India became increasingly homesick. “He talked a lot about Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. We knew it was very important to him,” Degaetano recalls. So she and other dorm mates offered to celebrate the holiday with him. “We at least tried to cook the traditional dishes,” she laughs. “We put up lights in the common areas, and we celebrated.” Over the winter holidays, the new tradition continued; students collected decorations, baked cookies, and made it as festive as possible to lift morale.
Henri Pettersson studies on a sailboat in Kiel‘s harbor
Being aware of each other’s situations helped put the difficulty of being at university during a pandemic into perspective, Degaetano says. Few students in online classes turned their cameras on, she recalls – maybe five for every 50. The rest either didn’t want to be seen or had bad internet connections. Even after months of online classes, the feeling of instability remained. The same applied to exams. “We couldn’t even get an overview of the exams we had taken,” she says. “On one exam I had the feeling that I deserved an even better grade. Under normal circumstances I would have gone and reviewed it, discussed it with the professor. That wasn’t allowed.” Undoubtedly, many of these unexpected learning experiences were born in hardship. While some students found themselves locked down in the comparative comfort of dorms or family pods, others found themselves more isolated. Henri Pettersson is one of them. He had never planned to start his university studies from a boat. When the 23-yearold canceled his Hamburg WG lease in early March 12
Many unexpected learning experiences were born in hardship
2020, he was looking forward to realizing a lifelong dream: sailing from Hamburg to the Mediterranean. He had just passed his exam as a professional boat builder and was ready to set sail in his seven-meter yacht, the Spaekke. Then came Germany’s lockdown. “All the ports shut down,” he recalls. He couldn’t leave. He had bought the Spaekke the previous year, tapping his savings. He had also just completed a slew of repairs. “I was frustrated because I was longing for something new. I needed another plan quickly.” Was this a good time to launch a new chapter? “Many of my friends had opted for university right after high school. I had not. So I enrolled in an industrial design bachelor’s program in Kiel. I wanted to expand my manual know-how with the possibilities of digital working and planning.” In the summer of 2020, bridging the time before the next semester, Pettersson volunteered as a boat builder, helping to repair the Rise Above, part of the fleet of Mission Lifeline, a sea rescue organization; the ship picks up refugees in the Mediterranean. By the time he got his acceptance letter from Kiel’s Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design, he had gotten used to living on his boat. He rented a berth in Kiel’s harbor for 65 euros a month. “That’s cheaper than any room in a shared flat,” he says. Now he wakes to the sound of waves slapping against the side of the boat. He makes his morning Joe with a little aluminum Bialetti coffee maker and eats a bowl of porridge in the cockpit. By 9:30 a.m. he is doing coursework, attending online seminars from his laptop below deck. “When I turn on the camera in the Zoom meeting of my art history course, my lecturer often laughs.” The harbor’s wireless connection is not always top-notch, he admits. “Once, I had to load Photoshop for a course; it took almost four hours. Another time it rained into the cabin because I had a leak in the roof. I fixed it between seminars.” At noon every weekday, Pettersson heads to campus to work on practical projects with fellow students – at a permissible social distance, of course. That has been a great experience, he says, “because it can get pretty lonely on a boat all by yourself.” Loneliness isn’t the only challenge. Pettersson has spent cold winter nights bundled in extra blankets. In the summer, low water levels in the harbor pose dangers to the boat when storms hit the Baltic Sea. He sometimes sets an alarm for the middle of the night to check his lines. But when classes are out, it’s smooth sailing. “On Friday afternoons, friends from other cities come to visit for the weekend. Then we sail out to sea together.” – Lukas Daniel Hildebrand and Madeleine Pollard contributed to this article
Photo: Julia Sellmann
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The Students 2.9 MILLION
students are currently enrolled in Germany 6 percent of all students have one or more children
OF ALL STUDENTS COME FROM ABROAD
In good times as in bad, Germany is a popular destination for many international students. In the 2020–21 academic year, 416,315 foreigners were enrolled in the country’s institutions of higher learning, representing 14 percent of all students. What draws them? Tuition is often minimal or even free, and the cost of living is comparably low. But many are also simply keen to learn more about the country, its people, and their lifestyle.
So what else do you want to know before the semester begins? Have you heard that two of Europe’s top universities are located in Munich? That 6 percent of all students are also parents? That you can get a master’s degree in trash management, Olympic studies, death, or ceramics? Or that, more likely than not, your academic peers will opt for fresh broccoli over frozen pizza at mealtime? A few fun facts can pep up the small talk on your first day at school...
BY MIRIAM K AROUT ILLUSTR ATION ROB EN ROBIN
Freie Hochschule Stuttgart OLYMPICS
Sport University Cologne WASTE
TU Dresden EQUINE SCIENCE
University of Göttingen TRANSFORMATION
Europa-Universität Flensburg DISASTER
University of Bonn CERAMICS
University of Freiburg GROCERIES
University of Bayreuth LAWN MANAGEMENT
Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences
FACTS The quality of life is also a draw for students from near and far. For the record ...
Period: 2020–21; Sources: Destatis; Deutsches Studentenwerk; Facts about Germany; Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft; Foundation for Future Studies; Times Higher Education; university websites; ZEIT Campus
52% 1800 OF GERMANS COOK FOR THEMSELVES
HOURS OF SUNSHINE PER YEAR
... and that trend is heating up. Germans prepare food at home more often than before the pandemic; over half of all citizens do so daily. And they are healthy eaters. Drinking habits are changing, too. The
average German consumed just 87 liters of beer in 2020 – lower than at any other point since the 1960s. And breweries sold around 8.7 billion liters of alcoholic beer in 2020, 508 million liters less than in 2019.
... Germany isn’t the sunniest place on earth, but it’s among the greenest. There’s a lot to offer when it comes to nature and the outdoors. No surprise, then, that about a third of all inhabitants plan to holiday in
Germany in 2021. An additional 32 percent will be going to neighboring countries, while a paltry 12 percent plan to vacation outside of Europe. There is enough to see and do close to home.
76% EAT FRUIT AND VEGGIES EACH DAY
82% SHOP FOR LOCAL INGREDIENTS
SURFACE AREA: 357,340 KM²
HIGHEST MOUNTAIN: ZUGSPITZE (2,962 M)
26% EAT MEAT DAILY
8% SEEK VEGAN
1% EAT FISH DAILY
27% LIKE TO SNACK
114,191 KM² OF FOREST
LONGEST RIVER: RHINE (865 KM)
ON THE MONEY
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Sources: Columbia University; Ernst-Abbe-Hochschule Jena University of Applied Sciences (EAH Jena); ETH Zurich; London School of Economics; Numbeo; Times Higher Education; XE Currency Converter; ZEIT calculations
Living and studying in German-speaking countries is cheaper than in the Anglo-Saxon world. The numbers speak for themselves Cost of Living and Studying (in euros)
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SHUGAA NASHWAN, 23, HANNOVER 18
BRAVE NEW WORLD From Sanaa to Hannover A Paralympic judo athlete fights for peace at home and abroad BY JILL PETZINGER PHOTO ANDY HAPPEL
When Shugaa Nashwan steps onto the judo mat at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in summer 2021, the nearly blind athlete from Yemen will be representing Germany as a member of its national team. Nashwan – whose first name Shugaa (pronounced “Tschut-tscha”) means courage in Arabic – says he fights proudly with the German eagle on his breast because he deeply loves his adopted country. Born in October 1997 in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, Nashwan was 4 years old when he began losing his sight, a year before he moved to Wiesbaden with his family. He remembers how his father tossed him a piece of candy one day. It fell, and Nashwan had to pat the ground to find it. It soon became clear that he had Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disorder that leads to gradual vision loss, especially in peripheral vision. “I discovered very early on that I definitely see the world differently,” Nashwan says. “That was the only consolation at the beginning, because I was very sad not to be able to play with the other children. I already sensed back then that this was not going to be the area where my strengths would lie.” However, he says, in his core he was aware that being blind was something special: “I had been given the gift of connecting with people differently.” A young man with an infectious positivity and energy, Nashwan is at ease with the world despite the fact that he has had a tough path to peace. “I have overcome a lot,” he says. “I have healed a lot of my trauma – also because I am surrounded by such a caring environment. I experienced a lot of violence in Yemen, also sexual abuse during my childhood.
It is structural [in Yemen], many families are affected by this,” he explains. He now makes a conscious effort to talk openly about his experiences, not just to help himself heal but also to raise awareness for others in similar plights. “It’s important to me that one doesn’t engage in victim behavior,” he stresses. A healthy mind and a healthy body are central to Nashwan’s life. In addition to being a world-class judoka, he enrolled in 2019 as a psychology student at the SRH Fernhochschule - The Mobile University, a distance university of applied sciences in Hannover. He would like to open his own sexual-therapy practice some day. He chose to study psychology because he noticed “that I can touch people very deeply with just my words, and as a competitive athlete, I have also noticed how important our body’s interaction with our soul is. The body is an indicator of the soul.” The concept of exchange is important to Nashwan, too. For him, human interaction is about giving someone something from your soul and getting a gift from them in return. That concept of
reciprocity is also evident to him in judo, which he sees as a “mega energy exchange” with high levels of trust between the fighters. “I know that this close contact won’t damage me,” he says. “I grow from it.” Nashwan became a German citizen at the age of 14; he’s been practicing judo since he was 7 years old. After trying out other martial arts as well as sports as diverse as riding, rowing, and dancing, he decided judo was the activity that united the most disciplines for him. In 2020 he returned to Yemen to create something positive in his troubled homeland. After having meditated and prayed, he knew that such a journey was what he wanted, despite the very real threat of violence and kidnapping in the country. Together with the Yemeni judoka master Ali Khousrof, Nashwan organized a “mini Olympics” for children and youth in Saana. Civil war has been raging between government forces and the Houthis in Yemen since 2014. The conflict is regarded as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 233,000 have died, with millions more displaced from their homes. UN Secretary General António Guterres said recently that more than 16 million people are expected to go hungry in the country this year and that nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death in famine-like conditions. At the mini Olympics, Nashwan and Khousrof had a friendly judo match against each other, under the banner “Fighting for Peace.” Nashwan hopes to establish a judo training center for Yemeni youth that would give them the chance to learn the values, discipline, joy, and freedom that sport can bring. 19
LAUREN TONTI, 29, MUNICH (WITH JUNO, HER DOG) 20
From Youngstown to Munich An American scholar ponders the legal implications of controversial Covid-19 vaccination drives BY EVA VON SCHAPER PHOTO RODERICK AICHINGER
Lauren Tonti wasn’t planning on moving to Munich. At first she didn’t even know that Germany’s Max Planck Society fostered research in law and policy. She thought the renowned institute was limited to funding studies in the natural sciences. On a visit to her then partner and now husband roughly five years ago, the American lawyer was strolling around the neighborhood of Maxvorstadt. This central part of town has long been home to two major universities. “I literally walked by Max-PlanckInstitut für Sozialrecht,” she recalls. She wondered what it was. Tonti had stumbled across her future academic home: the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. The institute, which focuses on sociopolitical issues from a legal and economic perspective, now supports Tonti’s work toward a doctorate in law from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München with a salary, office space, and a strong network of fellow researchers, among other things. Tonti is from Youngstown, Ohio, a small city sandwiched between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Part of a swathe of the United States aptly called the Rust Belt, these industrial zones of the northeast and midwest have seen vast numbers of factory jobs disappear over the past fifty years. Youngstown is “full of good people and a lot of grit,” Tonti says. Health care and other socioeconomic benefits there have declined steadily over the years – as they have throughout the US. Social strains like this were what drew her interest toward public health law. Tonti discovered her calling as a public health lawyer through a circuitous route. After getting her bachelor’s from Wellesley, an elite women’s college near Boston, she earned her law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She considered specializing either in international law or education law, but her interest in health law
was triggered in college through her work with a local youth group. Seeing food insecurity at close range made her realize, she says, “that law could be a really powerful tool to change something as simple as school lunch.” That experience, she says, “made me want to build a bridge between two disciplines, law and public health.” She went on to earn a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her stroll through Maxvorstadt came just as she was pondering what her next step would be. After that walk, she looked into the institute and its fields of research and immediately liked what she saw. Now, she has been living and working in Munich for three years. The research climate is firstrate, she says. But there are perks to living in Germany beyond that. To her, one of the most notable is the Gerrman health care system. Indeed, friends and family in Youngstown by now have heard Tonti’s story of her first visit to a local doctor’s office. She was ready to provide her credit-card details right away, which is standard procedure in the US. “I expected the same kind of questions, and there was none of that,” she says. “The mindset was a total shift for me.” The public-
health system is so impressive, Tonti quips, that Germany should include it in tourism ads. Her doctoral thesis will explore the interaction between law and population health. “I really wanted to incorporate that but apply it to the very discrete field of telemedicine.” Her thesis looks at the legal determinants of telemedicine quality across jurisdictions. “Law is one of the most powerful tools we can use to promote health,” she says. Telemedicine may not seem like the most natural segue into the legal implications of obligatory Covid-19 vaccination, Tonti says. Last year she published an article that delved into the pandemic from a legal angle. The article attempted to answer questions such as whether governments can make coronavirus vaccines mandatory and whether fully vaccinated people have a legal right to special privileges. She now is delving into the legal challenges related to Covid-19 vaccines – in Germany as well as abroad – and legal frameworks to consider when increasing immunization rates. “When it comes to things like vaccine passports, it’s uncharted territory and we’re still building the legal infrastructure,” she explains. “A lot of challenges revolve around digital security and equity, and also this issue of not having enough vaccines to go around.” Tonti is aware of the tensions surrounding such challenges, especially given the urgency of vaccine drives and the rise of anti-vaccination movements in countries around the world. Still, she insists, it’s a balancing act. “When the courts are looking at this legal issue, they’re balancing the protection of vulnerable groups with individual interests,” she says. “Generally, I don’t think vaccine passports are a bad idea, but it’s a nuance, right? We are setting a precedent for years to come, and there are a lot of considerations here. It’s good to think about it from all sides.” 21
FAR FROM HOME What happens to a traveling master’s program when the world is in lockdown? Some students simply hit the the road digitally In February 2021, when 25 students found out they were accepted into the Global Studies Programme (GSP) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, they packed their bags for Germany. GSP is a master’s-degree program that brings together students from around the world for studies and discussions on globalization at three different host universities. Originally offered at the University of Freiburg in 2001, a separate center was established at Humboldt in 2013. Over four semesters, students attend classes first in Berlin, then in Pretoria or Buenos Aires, and finally in Bangkok or New Delhi, before writing their master’s theses in the final semester. But for GSP’s 2022 cohort, an unusual challenge stood in the way of this planned globe-trotting. As 2 2 BY BARBAR A WOOLSEY
Germany struggled with a disastrous third wave of the pandemic, closing borders and tightening travel restrictions, students from the Dominican Republic, England, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere had to brace themselves for a semester or more stuck at home. Rather than let disappointment and uncertainty get them down, GSP students have leaned on each other across different locations and time zones to thrive while distance-learning. Aliye Volkan, a 25-year-old student living in the
Turkish city of Bodrum, says socializing online with her classmates has significantly raised her spirits. And she hasn’t even met any of them in person yet. “It’s been challenging being so isolated,” says Volkan, who has few connections in Bodrum because her family moved there while she was an undergraduate in Seattle. “It’s been such a relief to have new people in my life. We have been able to establish really good friendships despite the situation.” Students experimented with Skype, WhatsApp, and other platforms but found them too chaotic for large groups. They settled on using a free communitybuilding platform called Discord to keep in touch. Discord, which connects users on what’s known as a server, is organized across separate channels. GSP students have used these channels to form book and
film clubs, a weekly research and discussion group on “futurism,” and even a group to share recipes and extra reading materials. Using Discord’s Lounge function, students can see who’s hanging out in the chat room and hop in at any time. For fun, they post memes about the German philosophers they’re studying and make emojis of their professors. In fact, despite its jarring name, the platform has been a source of camaraderie in tumultuous times. “We have become friends already,” says Amanda Oliveira, a 27-year-old GSP student in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “Thanks to communicating via this platform, we knew each other before classes even began.” Now GSP’s coordinator has followed suit, creating a longer-range Discord server to connect students and alumni. The server is proving to be more intuitive than previous email lists and platforms; students past and present can easily network, post jobs, and collaborate on projects. One idea so far: a
forest initiative to plant trees near Berlin to offset carbon emissions from students’ flights. All the same, as the pandemic grinds on, the newest enrollees have experienced dizzying setbacks in their study and travel plans. Their second semester (in Pretoria and Buenos Aires, respectively) will be hosted remotely. They have taken matters into their own hands. In September, most of the group wants to try out distance-learning together in Turkey, where coronavirus policy should allow inbound travel from multiple countries. There, they will form a Wohngemeinschaft, or shared living space, in two villas in the south-
western port city of Datça. They are looking forward to attending virtual classes against the scenic backdrop of the Aegean Sea. They’ll sleep on pull-out sofas, drink raki, and barbecue together. Most importantly, they will get to know each other in person. “The program is about traveling, and we haven’t been able to travel, so we wanted to still try for that experience,” says Volkan. “It’s close to Germany for those students who did make it to Berlin, and the exchange rate to the euro makes it affordable.” Looking forward to 2022, students hope that the global pandemic will have petered out enough to allow in-person attendance for their third and fourth semesters in Asia and Berlin, respectively. If not, they will find new ways to connect. “We have realized how important it is to create a safe space to socialize and talk about Covid and mental health,” says Volkan. “Not being able to travel and meet each other in person is a bummer, but by coming together we have handled it overall pretty well.” ILLUSTR ATION K ATE DEHLER
From Social Distancing
As Germany tentatively says goodbye to the pandemic, it’s a strange new world. Luckily, there’s a lot of new vocabulary to describe it. British humor writer Adam Fletcher explains
Photos: Tim Peukert, Bastian Thiery
Photos (left to right): Iris Humm, Doro Zinn
Risikogebiet & Herdenschutz It’s not controversial to say that Covid-19 caught humanity off-guard, drunk, and asleep in a bathtub. How each country reacted tells a lot about the people who live there. Israel immediately bolted its doors, and it worked. Sweden left everything wide open, and it didn’t. The UK decided it would rather shut down anything but its pubs, and we all know how that turned out. New Zealand, Taiwan, and Singapore showed paths to steering clear of the worst of 26
Photos: Jan Philip Welchering (left), Bastian Thiery
it, yet almost no one followed suit. Of course, in all three of these cases, it really helped to be an island. Germany plodded along as only it can. This is a land of exquisite thinkers but sometimes indecisive, ponderous actors. For better or for worse, Germans are often great at describing
a problem without necessarily knowing what to do about it. So what happened? At first the country mostly pulled together. Then things fell apart while the federal states all squabbled among themselves in a giant Öffnungsdiskussionsorgie (lockdown-or-not discussion orgy). And yet the EU’s most populous country did excel where it so often does: linguistically. It may not have had innovative strategies, but it did invent some innovative super-nouns.
Mütend & Begegnungsfläche
and Doro Zinn (center), Sebastian Wolf (right)
If it at first lacked vaccines (despite being home to the successful vaccine inventor BioNTech), it soon had warehouses full of neologisms that beautifully described everyone’s frustration: Impfneid (vaccine jealousy), Impfluenzer (vaccine influencer), and Impfallianz (vaccine alliance) were just a few. In fact, the pandemic sparked so many new words that the Leibniz-Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim decided to compile its very own corona-
virus dictionary. What better way to mark this moment? Its list already has more than a thousand entries. You can find it on owid. de/docs/neo/listen/corona.jsp. If you’re thinking of moving to Germany, learning just a few of these zingers will help you navigate your new life in the land of
Dichter und Denker. Some of these zeitgeist-defining terms will be with us for years … Wuhanshake: Kiss-wary Germans have been “social distancing” since long before it was cool or even medically advisable. But Covid-19 allowed us to finally settle the national debate over whether to “handshake or hug” when greeting people. The winner is a new, very pleasing elbow-or-heel greeting known informally as the Wuhanshake. It’s both a huge relief 27
Nahweh & Kontaktlose Lieferung as well as an improvement for everyone, so you can expect it to stick around. And as a bonus we even got a great new word that sums up why that cheek kissing you see in fruity, overly-familiar countries like France has always been so suspect: Todesküsschenfaktor (kiss of death factor). How validating! Stay safe, keep elbowing. Nahweh: Germans quickly realized that Covid-19 was not a story of Fernweh, that yearning for far-away 28
Photos: Fritzi Schwarzbauer (left), Niklas Grapatin
places known around all the world as wanderlust. No, surprisingly, we did not miss travel but rather yearned for what was so close yet so inaccessible due to a myriad of lockdownrelated restrictions. The familiar, flickering candlelight of a favorite student Kneipe (bar), say. Or the
fresh, buttery sweet popcorn smell wafting through your local Kino (cinema). Germans, like many other peoples around the world, missed the friendships and welcoming faces of the Verein (club or association). The difference is that they gave this unusual emotion an incredibly poetic name: Nahweh (nearbylust). Mütend: Stereotype though it may be, this is a nation that likes order and efficiency. But if it can
Heimarbeitspflicht & Outdoorklasse
and Iris Humm (center), Conrad Bauer (right)
only have one of these two, Germany picks order. So while living here, you will occasionally meet processes that – while well-defined and well-meant – seem archaic. You will question why your Anmeldung (registration) must take place in person, even if the office is only open on Wednesdays at lunchtime, during full moon. You will question why there are four forms – with mostly duplicate information – instead of one at the local bank, or why
even in a national emergency you can’t get vaccinated on a Sunday (or do anything much else on a Sunday either, come to think of it). Don’t overthink it. Criticism is easy. Destruction is the unqualified, idiotic younger brother of construction. Instead, stop, look around, and appreciate that no
matter how unfathomable the rules may seem or how often they change, no matter how müde (tired) or wütend (angry) people are – or if they’re that newly minted combination of both, mütend – the majority of them will really just quietly get on with things. You are in Germany now. So remember: you can get on with it, too. Querdenker: In many countries, the goal is to stand out, attract attention, and be seen as a free29
Photo: Conny Mirbach
thinking radical. Here, everyone knows there’s only safety in numbers. And therefore you should only stand out in how exquisitely you fit in. The American Dream is exceptionalism, the German Dream is highly-qualified-quiet-specialism. The term Querdenker, an age-old German term suddenly heard around the world, is an interesting recent example. While it used to be an almost neutral, perhaps even obscure term for an “unconven30
tional thinker” – say, the campus contrarian – it now has been co-opted by lockdown-resistant, vaccine-suspicious, lateral-thinking mavericks and quickly has become a mainstream insult. Remember that here, thinking differently is often synonymous with thinking badly.
Homeclubbing: Remember clubbing? Great, wasn’t it? So … loud. And busy. And queue-full. A favorite part of the experience was waiting 45 minutes to reach a door guarded by a heavily tattooed, sturdy stranger who spent two seconds evaluating your coolness before deciding that you, well, weren’t cool. Joke’s on him, sucker, because staying in is the new going out! Now it’s all about Homeclubbing. So put your laptop camera on, pump up the techno, and get this (appropriately very socially distanced) online party started. Whoop, whoop. Kuschelkontakt: Some relationships are for life. Others are for lockdown. With the start of each new wave of Covid-19 cases, Germany’s dating apps became a frenzied place where normally commitmentphobic singles rushed to “bubble” with someone and make them their official, government-sanctioned Kuschelkontakt (cuddle contact). Romance never felt so formal. Abstandsbier: During the pandemic, many of us realized that the best way to socialize actually has nothing to do with being elbowed in the dark while shouting across an overcrowded bar. Far from it. The new social scene in 2021 is all about walking. We simply strolled along with our Kuschelkontakt through our very own Kiez (neighborhood), nodding briskly at our neighbors as we discussed the SiebenTage-Inzidenz (seven-day incidence rate) as if it were the Bundesliga results. And while the topic of conversation is (hopefully) changing, that new way of walking and the words to describe it are likely here to stay. Indeed, more and more Germans are enjoying a safe mix of two ageold beloved pastimes: spazieren (taking a stroll) and saufen (boozing). The cool kids have even come up with their own term for it: Spazierbier. Though the Leibniz-approved definition is Abstandsbier. Solidarsemester: There are lots of signs of hope. As Germans like to say, die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt (hope dies last). But (at the time of writing, early summer 2021) no one knows how normal the winter semester of 2021 will be in Germany, or elsewhere for that matter. Even if we end up riding more waves than a professional surfer, there might still be an important role for newcomers to play, like the many students and professors of medicine who declared a Solidarsemester (solidarity semester) and volunteered in overrun clinics during the early days of the virus. Indeed, whether it’s recycling properly, cleaning shared spaces thoroughly, volunteering selflessly, or joining clubs and groups prodigiously, civic responsibility matters here. Pitching in is the fastest way to win hearts, minds, and the still-popular Quarantinis (vodka, lime juice, ginger beer, passion fruit, and mint). Prost!
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BAFÖG n. (German Federal Training Assistance Act) a federal act regulating state-funded financial assistance for students in higher education. Half of this financial support usually takes the form of a grant; the other half is an interest-free state loan of up to 10,000 euros. The loan must be repaid in installments after completion of studies. BOLOGNA-PROZESS m. (higher education reform) 1. a series of agreements between 49 European countries to ensure common standards of higher education (named after the university where education ministers from 29 countries signed a declaration in 1999). 2. introduction of a two-tiered structure of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as easy transfer of credits between institutions within this bloc of countries, which is known as the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA. DEUTSCHER AKADEMIS C H E R A U S TA U S C H DIENST (DAAD) m. (German
DEFINING VOCABULARY German universities have a language all their own. Key terms to help cut through the jargon BY DEBOR AH STEINBORN ILLUSTR ATION ROB EN ROBIN
Academic Exchange Service) 1. a large federally and statefunded, self-governing support organization for international aca d emic cooper a tion. 2. a popular sourceof scholarship funding and research grants for foreigners studying in Germany. www.daad.de/en DEUTSCHE FORSCHUNGSGEMEINSCHAFT (DFG) f.
(German Research Foundation) an organization that funds research at universities and other institutions through a variety of grants and prizes. It’s the largest funding organization in Europe. www.dfg.de/en DUALES STUDIUM n. (dual study) 1. a system of combining
ERASMUS-PROGRAMM n. (Erasmus Program) 1. a student-exchange program financed by the European Union, combining all current EU schemes for education, training, youth, and sports. 2. acronym for European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. EXZELLENZSTRATEGIE f. (excellence strategy) 1. a long-term effort by the German Ministry of Education and Research to promote cutting-edge research conditions for scholars, better cooperation between academic disciplines as well as institutions, and the global reputation of German universities and research institutions. 2. an initiative awarding special status to 11 German public universities. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021, five of these so-called elite universities are among Europe’s top 25: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Technical University of Munich, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Heidelberg University, and University of Tübingen. FACHHOCHSCHULE f. (university of applied sciences) 1. an institution of higher vocational education, often focussing on specific areas such as engineering or business. On average, an institution of this kind hosts 5,000 students. 2. an educational body that usually doesn’t confer doctorates. FORSCHUNGSINSTITUT n. (research institute) a research body typically outside of the university system. The top four, FraunhoferGesellschaft, Helmholtz Association, Max Planck Society, and Leibniz Association, employ about 87,000 researchers and research assistants. HABILITATION f. (post-doctoral qualification) 1. a postdoctoral degree necessary for a full professorship at German universities. 2. Germany’s highest academic qualification, requiring defense of a major work of independent scholarship. HOCHSCHULRANKING n. (university ranking) a ranking of institutions of higher learn-
ing based on diverse factors. The CHE University Ranking, for example, ranks institutions according to student and faculty assessments. https://ranking.zeit.de/che/en/ MENSA f. (dining hall) a campus location that provides meals to university students and staff; subsidized meals usually cost less than four euros. PRÜ FU N G SAMT n. (ex amination office) a university division that handles all matters related to student exams and also issues educational certificates. Students need to register to take exams in Germany.
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STUDIENKOLLEG n. (preparatory program) a public educational institution in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland that prepares students whose secondary school certificate isn’t recognized as equivalent to the Abitur (highschool diploma).
37000+ 38000+ students
TECHNISCHE HOCHSCHULE f. (technical university)
a university that specializes in engineering, technology, and related fields. Some confer doctorates, while others do not.
years of history
UNIVERSITÄT (UNI) f. (university) 1. an institution of higher learning with facilities for teaching and research that also awards bach elor’s and master’s degrees. It hosts on average 16,000 students. 2. an educational body with the right to confer doctorates.
(WG) f. (shared apartment) a private living arrangement that accommodates several biologically unrelated people. Tenants share common areas such as bathroom, kitchen, and living room but occupy their own bedrooms.
degree programms grammes
© FAU/Jonas Baumgärtel
an apprenticeship at a company or non-profit organization with higher education in a particular field. 2. a program mostly used by students of business administration, engineering, and social services.
“N I M B LE AN D EFFICIENT” Ursula Staudinger rose to the top of American academia. After decades abroad, she’s back as rector of Technische Universität Dresden. A conversation about reverse brain drain and the pros and cons of German university life BY ANNA-LENA SCHOL Z AND DEBOR AH STEINBORN PHOTOS MONIK A KEILER
That is a major achievement. I also became interested because it is one of the few technical universities offering a full range of disciplines beyond engineering and natural sciences. We have full-fledged programs in the humanities and social sciences here. As somebody with a background in the behavioral sciences, I felt I was in a unique position to bridge these two types of disciplines. So there was this special opportunity to take my institutional expertise and generalize it across all the fields of science and academic education at TU Dresden. In addition, my husband and I had been very clear from the beginning that we wanted to return to Germany at some point.
You had a great position in the American Ivy League. Why on earth did you come back to Germany? It was not so much going away from something as going toward something. In my career, every position that I’ve taken has had a certain half-life for me. So when I was at Columbia University for seven and a half years, I felt that I had raised the bar for the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center from nonexistence to visibility and had established it at the university. When a headhunting firm contacted me about taking over as rector of TU Dresden, it also meant I would be closing a circle in my life, as I had my first professorship there twenty years ago. It got me excited. I took a closer look. And to be honest, I was extremely enthusiastic to see all that had changed since I had left the university back in 2003. What specifically excited you? I was really amazed by the university’s development, for example that it had succeeded twice in the national excellence competition. 34
A Columbia University captain‘s chair in Staudinger‘s TU Dresden office
When you left the US in 2020 Donald Trump was still up for reelection. Did the political atmosphere there also play a role in your decision? Of course that was the backdrop at the moment when we left. Let’s just say it made it easier to decide. But I was always sure the country would reinvent itself after Trump’s presidency. I’m not saying that the goals have
Ursula Staudinger, 62, took the helm as rector of TU Dresden in August 2020
already been reached, but the process of redefining the US as a nation is underway, and it is a very creative nation. After the first year back in Germany, it is obvious that this country has a lot to offer. Once one has been away for a while, it clears the view for these advantages that long-term residents tend to forget. What were the most positive surprises? I’m not sure I should say surprises, but I must say, compared to the US, the overall standard of living and level of infrastructure are significantly higher. That is probably in particular the case in the former East German states, because the infrastructure is more recent here; a lot was built up and renewed after German reunification. Can you be more specific? Housing here is on average at a higher level of development than in the US. Maybe that’s particular to New York. The level of renovation there does not match any renovation that you
“I was always sure the country would reinvent itself after Trump’s presidency”
would find here in Germany – even though many buildings here are hundreds of years old. Take the heating system of our building in New York, built in 1906. It still runs with steam heating, so you have no way to regulate the heat except for opening the window. That’s just a small example. Public transportation is another, bigger one. Dresden has a very modern tram system and a perfectly functioning bus system.
What about the academic landscape? What does Germany offer in contrast to the US? The two systems are hard to compare because they are built on such different assumptions. In the US, the basic assumption is that higher education is not a common good but rather a privately owned good. And this decision gets discussed and then renewed again and again. In Germany – and in continental Europe, for that matter – it’s the opposite. The basic consensus here is that higher education has to be a highly valued public good. And both of these approaches come at a price. For a long time, it’s been the case that, on average, university education in Germany is better than in the US. But at some of the top institutions, it is better in the US. That is why the German national and state governments have started to foster what’s known as excellence … The government started what first was called the Excellence Initiative and is now the so-called
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Excellence Strategy. Whatever the name, the plan has been to invest more money in the university system. When you look at the rankings of the top German universities, they have indeed improved as a consequence of this funding. Historically, by the way, the German research system had two streams. Public universities are governed by the individual German states, not the federal government. But Berlin had an interest in influencing research activities, too, so it invested immensely over the decades in the second stream: research institutions outside the universities like the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association, the Leibniz Association, and the FraunhoferGesellschaft. As a result, large amounts of money pour into these research institutes but not into the public universities because the federal government has so far not been allowed to finance them beyond project funding. German academics tend to praise the Excellence Strategy, but it hasn’t received
“We do realize that sustained high public investment for research pays off”
much recognition in the US. When you told people at Columbia you were leaving for Dresden, did they know about it? No, they didn’t even know TU Dresden. They probably thought it was one of these provincial little college places. But they have developed a certain arrogance based on decades of academic supremacy, so that wasn’t a counter argument to me. Rather, it confirmed my decision to contribute so that the visibility of
a top-rate university like TU Dresden will be higher in ten or twenty years. That’s a long time. Can Germany really create something like the Ivy League without mighty private endowments? Indeed, Germany cannot just make up for the enormous endowments at the big Ivy League schools. That is what makes them resilient even in a huge crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, even though they are residential universities. The German budget for “excellence,” which is financed by federal and state government, looks like a drop in the bucket in contrast. And even within Europe, when you look at Switzerland and places like the ETH Zurich, you get a sense of what you need to invest in order to push an academic institution to the top. However, we do realize that sustained high public investment for research pays off. Visibility has increased. We have come into a position to recruit scientists for TU Dresden but also for Germany in general that would
Let‘s shape the future together…
... at the German University of Resources – reseach for sustainablity since 1765.
not have been possible ten years ago. Most of them are attracted by the “Excellence Clusters” because the researchers who collaborate to gain the funding for an excellence cluster are highly visible from the start. And the funding in turn enables them to make very competitive offers. They are equipped with very good resources, and they can focus on research.
the world – from the US all the way to China and Japan, where research into aging plays a very important role.
Are a lot of these individuals actually coming from North America right now? Some. We have just recruited a colleague from the University of California at Santa Barbara. We attract scientists from the UK as well, Cambridge for example, Edinburgh. The top institutions in China are also an important recruitment pool for us. Germans already talk proudly about a reverse brain drain. Did Donald Trump help by cutting public research budgets in the US right after coming into office? This might affect the US research climate for quite some time. The cutbacks by the Trump administration were very selective. When he was elected, we all were in disarray for a week or so because we felt that’s the end of research as we know it. But that wasn’t the case. He cut funding for environmental research and fertility-related research, for instance, in developing countries. Since my institute was based at a school of public health, I had colleagues in despair who did such research in Africa and other places. But large parts of the national research portfolio remained untouched, including my immediate research on aging. In the end, Trump’s migration policies were of bigger concern since many bright young scholars opted against coming to the country during that period. That hurt the US as a research nation. After your long experience abroad, how do you define yourself? As a German citizen, and maybe also as a naturalized American as well? My years in the US actually confirmed my early experience as a Fulbright scholar in 1980–81. It made me feel more European, not less. But having said this, I’m a European with a global reach. So the past year was a sad one, as the pandemic deprived me of personal contacts with colleagues from around 38
Strolling along the campus of TU Dresden
Psychologist Ursula Staudinger is a leading international researcher in the science of aging. Her intellectual roots span two countries in particular: her homeland Germany and the United States. A Fulbright fellowship at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, in 1980 was just the start. She later returned to the US for stints at Florida University and Stanford University. She obtained a doctorate in psychology at Freie Universität Berlin and has held top posts including as vice president and dean of Jacobs University in Bremen. In 2013, she founded and developed the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University in New York. She returned to Germany in August 2020 to become the new rector of TU Dresden
Global reach is especially important at a time of prevailing nationalistic and populist tendencies. Can academia save a sense of global cooperation? Well, with all we do at our university, we realize that we are acting in a global network of research institutions and places of higher education and that we are fulfilling a role as a societal agent. Universities are very important agents in every society that can afford to have them. And we have to take this role very seriously right now. We must feel responsible to provide input for the big challenges that humankind is facing these days – from the climate crisis to digitization to aging populations, you name it. Universities can make a major contribution. There is also a local dimension to working with society – startups and other types of knowledge transfer, for example. How do you see the university’s role there? We do our best to create positive visibility for Dresden and the state of Saxony beyond the negative publicity generated by right-wing political movements. But of course, such public perceptions linger. So we have to work actively to substitute new topics for the old ones. This is a very good reason to have come here. Lots of members of the academic community are engaged in civic groups here. And according to a rough head count, there are roughly 10,000 scientists working in and around Dresden in institutions associated with an alliance called Dresden-concept. It was founded more than 10 years ago and is an enormous resource and one important voice that needs to speak out. After all this enthusiasm about Germany, let’s ask the next question like a New Yorker: Is there anything about the German university system that really pisses you off? Well, in the US, university leadership has more autonomy. You can take decisions and run with them. That is not how our German system is constructed. Even though autonomy has grown over the years, it’s still not at the level of a university president in an Ivy League institution. In addition, some administrative
* processes here are unnecessarily long-winded, and we are working on that. We want to make the organization more nimble and efficient. What would you like to tell foreign students about the German academic experience? Foreign students considering TU Dresden should know that the range of subjects they can study here is enormous. At the same time, they can dig deeply into one specific area of science. And they can do all that in an environment that is extremely conducive to a good life. There is a rich cultural life in Dresden as well as beautiful surroundings. What can we tell foreign students about women in science and research? Are there differences between the US and Germany in how they are treated? Germany is still somewhat behind. Look at the comparatively small number of female professors – or of women in university leadership positions for that matter. We have some catching up to do. As a psychologist, I know that our daily environment determines our expectations. The more normal it becomes to see women in scientific leadership, the easier it will be to convince the next generation of women to reach for such positions. That is also a question of the legal system, by the way. In the US, victims of chauvinism are more likely to fight back with tough lawsuits than they are here. All the same, it has sent a signal that TU Dresden decided to put a woman at the helm. And I certainly feel supported in my position. Many German women in science say they still experience discrimination ... Have you been asked to make coffee, say, or encountered disparaging behavior? You know, I preempt this kind of situation by making the coffee in the first place, and then everybody says to me, oh no, you shouldn’t be doing this. In general, we are aiming to create a university culture that welcomes and fosters diversity, which comes with a multitude of perspectives. And one way to do this is for me to step out of the hierarchy and be a team member. The Senate of TU Dresden also selected two more women as members of the university executive board. The count now is three women and four men. Not so bad, is it?
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BY EMILY SCHULTHEIS ILLUSTR ATION K ATE DEHLER
When a Hamburg-based university called for applications to “do nothing,” it never expected to attract thousands of proposals from around the world In the summer of 2020, Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts (HBFK) announced a call for applications for its Stipendium für Nichtstun – a “grant for doing nothing.” Organizers expected at most a few hundred submissions from artists based in Germany. But when a whopping 2,864 candidates from 70 countries threw their hats into the ring, the process took on a life of its own. HBFK had conceived the prize as part of a broader project to consider the meaning of art in a productivity-driven society. The concept struck a chord. Each proposal offered a unique answer to the grant’s main question: If you had 1,600 euros to do absolutely nothing, what aspects of your life would you rethink? Or, put in another way, what would you no longer do? One of the youngest applicants, a 9-yearold elementary school student in Germany, said he would convince his parents to bike with him to school every day for two weeks instead of hopping in the car. A Black pastor in the United States wrote of wanting to work through the anxiety and rage he feels every time he reads about police killing another Black American. An environmental activist in Brazil described wanting to collect plastic waste in her village.
The phrase Nichtstun cuts two ways, explains Friedrich von Borries, a professor of design theory at HBFK and the stipend’s initiator. Its literal translation is to “do nothing.” But Nichtstun can also mean intentionally forgoing a particular action or aspect of society. “That tension between the lazy, hangloose aspects and the deliberate decision to avoid harmful actions is what moved, touched, and interested so many people,” von Borries says. Although proposals ranged widely, many fell into one of three areas, reflecting current political and societal trends, von Borries says. There were applicants who didn’t want to participate in capitalist society; those who wanted a break from the current flood of online information and digital communication; and those eager to challenge particular social norms in their respective communities. A jury of three (a museum director, a philosopher, and a lawyer) worked up a shortlist of 14 international candidates before choosing Hilistina Banze, 31, Mia Hofner, 26, and Kimberley Vehoff, 22. As it happened, all three winners were women from Germany. By the spring of
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2021 they had finished “doing nothing,” and Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (MK&G) planned to present their experiences throughout the summer. Banze, a Muslim feminist based in Hamburg, chose not to wear her headscarf for a week as a statement about societal expectations for women. Reflecting on the experience of leaving her close-cropped hair uncovered, she says she noticed two types of reactions. “Those who know me well didn’t make a big deal out of it,” she told a local newspaper. “But those who had no special role in my life wanted me to explain myself; actually it was quite the paradox.” Vehoff, a food technology worker from Bad Fallingbostel, wanted to stop doing her job for half a year, noting that her personal relationships suffered due to her irregular work schedule. For her part, Hofner, a conceptual designer and student in Cologne, wanted to avoid generating any personal data for two weeks; her aim was to draw attention to the controversial issue of data privacy. “People still talk about the internet like it’s this utopian place where information roams around and we can simply take it,” Hofner says. “But at the same time, as we
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access this information, we’re producing more of our own information. In that sense, information on the internet isn’t actually free. We don’t pay for it with money. We pay for it with data.” After working on a university project related to data protection, Hofner said she saw the stipend as a way to take a more “radical” approach. She would never suggest that people go offline permanently. In fact, she says, even two weeks proved challenging. For example, when her cat fell ill shortly before her data hiatus, she had to search online for a veterinarian. It’s moments like these, she noted, that make it hard to avoid producing any data at all. “I somehow have the feeling that data protection is still really a niche topic in Germany, that almost no one deals with it in a political context,” Hofner says. “That was one reason I applied for this grant.” Even those who didn’t win the 1,600 euros have stayed in touch with von Borries via phone and email, and many of them went ahead with their projects even without the grants. The ongoing dialogue, he says, has been nearly as rewarding as the stipend itself.
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UK Uni in Germany Lancaster Uni Leipzig awaits you Lancaster University (LU) Leipzig is the ﬁrst branch campus of a British public university in Germany. Lancaster University ranks in the top 10 of all three national league tables in the United Kingdom and received a gold rating in the British government’s »Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework« assessment. LU Leipzig offers a range of degree programmes, with the university committed to providing the same academic quality and student experience it offers in the UK. The campus is located in the heart of the city of Leipzig and welcomes German, EU and international students. Leipzig hosts international companies such as Porsche, BMW, DHL and Amazon, and is a lively university town. ›Lancaster University chose Leipzig because this city has everything that is needed to offer students a fantastic time whilst studying as well as longer-plan settlement opportunities: a diverse social structure, many recreational offerings, a student-friendly infrastructure, a good housing market, growing industries – and, thus, the prospect for jobs, good connections to the rest of Europe, and, like Lancaster, a ›Lake District‹ close by.‹ says Dr. Elisabeth Grindel-Denby (Campus Director at Lancaster University Leipzig). LU Leipzig currently offers the following Englishtaught programmes: BSc Accounting and Finance, BSc Business Management, BSc Computing, BSc Software Engineering, MSc Logistics and Supply Chain Management. Entry routes are either direct or via Foundation or Pre-Masters Programme. For more info or to book a place, please contact us. LANCASTER UNIVERSITY LEIPZIG Strohsackpassage Leipzig Tel. (0341) 33 97 58 08 firstname.lastname@example.org
KOLLEG-BOUND Each year, thousands of students from abroad choose to enroll in so-called Studienkollegs. These free preparatory programs are optimal stepping stones to German university BY CAROLE BR ADEN PHOTO MAX SLOBODDA
The first day of classes in 2020 is etched in Darya Igonina’s mental datebook. With a C1 German-language certificate in hand and a high score on her mathematics entrance exam, she was ready for the informatics track at Technische Universität Darmstadt. But on September 1, when winter semester started, Igonina was stuck at home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. “All of my friends who had applied were already in Darmstadt,” recalls the graduate of Schule Nr. 68, a linguistics Gymnasium (high school) that prepares Kazakhstani students for German universities. “But I had a problem with my visa,” she says. It simply had not arrived. Looking forward to settling into her quadsuite in the dormitory, Igonina was also ready to begin lessons at TU Darmstadt’s Studienkolleg, an intensive yearlong preparatory program in math, science, and tech that is taught entirely in German. She eventually made it. Now in her second semester, Igonina is among approximately 5,000 students who enroll annually in one of about 20 public Studienkollegs in Germany. Each is affiliated with one or more state universities. These tuition-free programs serve as stepping stones for foreign students who want to matriculate at German universities. They help newcomers shore up educational soft spots, hone study habits, learn about the local culture, and sharpen their language skills. Back in September 2020, unable to enter the country, Igonina signed up for her first classes via Zoom. Due to an uptick in co-
A Studienkolleg can help newcomers hone study habits and focus on language skills
ronavirus cases, the Studienkolleg had embarked on the semester virtually. Speaking via WhatsApp video, Igonina, 18, describes what could only have been a Covid-19 delay. She’d waited weeks for the snail-paced mail to deliver her student visa. Finally, on the fourth day of school, a caller from the German consulate in Almaty directed her to pick up the document. Igonina rebooked her flight and arrived in Darmstadt on September 5. At the Studienkolleg, she recalls, peers shared their notes with her, and “megasupportive” teachers helped students ease in. “They understood that not everyone is able to take in information and speak German right away,” the native Russian speaker says. The math instructor started slowly, reviewing vocabulary for basic processes like multiplication and division. “Everything is taught from the beginning,” she explains, “and everyone has a chance to catch up.” The incentives to enroll in a Studienkolleg are real. “You get a very, very good degree in a country where tuition is free and job opportunities are growing,” says Michael Harms, director of communications for the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), Germany’s Academic Exchange Service. For foreign students looking to earn bachelor’s degrees in Germany, enrolling in a Studienkolleg is not required. Well-prepared candidates can also test straight into their chosen degree programs, hopping over this preparatory phase. But Studienkollegs are a sort of on-site training for higher education, giving students a foundation for future learning. And research by some of the country’s largest universities shows that foreign students study faster and have greater success if they prepare for a subject at a Studienkolleg. University-level Studienkollegs offer a range of pre-academic programs, from T-courses, which ready students for engineering, to those in the humanities, languages, business and economics, and medical, biological, and pharmaceutical studies. Others serve universities of applied sciences and may offer social sciences, technical and engineering, art and design, or economics and business courses. (See sidebar.) No matter the major, the nuts-and-bolts curricula aim to put German-as-a-secondlanguage students (who are generally at a min48
“Everything is taught from the beginning, and everyone has a chance to catch up” DARYA IGONINA, 18
imum B1 language level) on par with natives (who have Gymnasium Abitur degrees). Practical skills and overall knowledge may need bolstering, too. Jwan Ali, 23, is a Kurdish student of mechanical engineering at the Studienkolleg für ausländische Studierende at the Hochschule Wismar in MecklenburgWest Pomerania. The Syrian refugee says his instructors stressed the cultural importance of punctuality in Germany. And Sewon O, a 22-year-old linguistics student at the Studienkolleg Sachsen at Universität Leipzig, learned to “write” a test in the German way. Back home in Seoul, she explains, exams are multiple choice. Vani Julyani Haryanto, 20, a classmate of O’s from Jambi, Indonesia, who is studying Anglistics, learned about Brotzeit – a Bavarian take on snack time – and the German view of World War II. “I encourage students to talk,” says Anja Wellna. The Studienkolleg Sachsen teacher led
chats in German about tattoos, climate change, and family culture during a half in-person, half online school year. “The first semester, some didn’t understand every word,” she says, but by the second, “they reached a high level.” Some Studienkollegs offer a gamut of courses while others are more specialized. Studienkolleg TU Darmstadt preps newcomers like Igonina for technical studies with math, science, and engineering. Each winter and summer semester, explains Barbara Hennig, the school’s director, the program receives more than 1,000 applications, and competition is tough. Though hard, a detour through a Studienkolleg has much to recommend it. There’s a lot of work involved to get solid scores on the Feststellungsprüfung, or final exam; but once you score well, you’ll likely enter the university program you have in mind. Applying to Studienkolleg has hurdles, too. Language proficiency must be demonstrated via test or certificate. And since placement is an offshoot of university general admissions, high-school diplomas are scrutinized. “Countries have different standards, and the certificates might not be on par with the German Abitur,” Hennig says. Anabin – a database supported by the Kultusministerkonferenz (the conference of state educational ministers) – provides comprehensive information on foreign educational credentials. Its website anabin.kmk.org offers countryby-country equations for calculating where a foreign academic degree falls on the German scale. The Hochschulzugangsberechtigung is an important qualifying score. If navigating all of this sounds complicated, there’s help. Many candidates streamline the process with uni-assist, a central point of contact for university applicants with international educational certificates. It serves roughly half of Germany’s 300 public universities. Uni-assist receives around 300,000 applications yearly and facilitates multiple, simultaneous submissions to many universities with Studienkollegs. It expedited admissions during Covid-19. The service was founded nearly two decades ago, but in 2020–21, the number of universities that used it for digital applications grew threefold. With Studienkolleg support, students stranded by pandemic travel bans were able to stay in the loop. Platforms like Zoom, Webex,
Course Code Cheat Sheet
TUM School of Management Technical University of Munich
UNIVERSIT Y STUDIENKOLLEGS OFFER ... M: medicine, biology, and
T: mathematics, science, and technology W: business, economics, and
G: humanities and German studies S: languages UNIVERSIT Y OF APPLIED SCIENCES STUDIENKOLLEGS OFFER .. . TI: tech and engineering W W: economics and business GD: art and design SW: social sciences
Moodle, BigBlueButton, and others were key to distance learning during the crisis. Other forms of support: foreign students became eligible for government-issued 500-euro monthly relief payments; government policy changes waived mandatory health-insurance contributions for students who were stranded abroad. The government also eventually granted visas to foreign students, even though many could only study virtually once they arrived. For Igonina, it was a challenging year – including many Zooms and just a short stint of Wechselunterricht, or alternate-week, in-person instruction. The informatics hopeful is preparing for her Feststellungsprüfung, which will determine whether she may pursue her degree next year. Confident and feeling at home in Germany, she’s a perfect example of the Studienkolleg’s core tenet. Crossing borders for education is rife with obstacles, but with the right academic and practical support, foreign students will succeed.
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tory from every possible angle. The complicity of their universities under the Nazis is one of those angles. Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung is just one of the many terms coined for this necessary but wrenching work – a 26-letter combination of “past” (Vergangenheit) and “reworking”
PRESENTING THE PAST GLOBAL UNIVERSITIES LEARN HOW GERMANS “WORK OFF THE PAST” BY DEBOR AH STEINBORN ILLUSTR ATION ROB EN ROBIN
When the Technische Universität Dresden announced in February 2021 that an international commission of historians would examine the university’s role in the Nazi years (1933–1945), some foreign students enrolled there surely wondered, “Why now?” But German historians weren’t surprised. It was just one more step on a long path to addressing the darkest chapter in the country’s past. Seventy-six years after the end of World War II and the discovery of the horrific extent of the Holocaust, Germans are poring over their his-
(Aufarbeitung) for which there is no equivalent in English. “Working off the past” is a loose translation. Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung does not just end, says Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, professor emeritus of history at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) and a leading historian of education. “There is always another aspect to be examined. It is a continuous process.” As Richard von Weizsäcker put it in a famous 1985 speech marking the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, “Anyone who closes his eyes to the
past is blind to the present.” The words of the former West German president still ring true in 2021. Germany’s lessons may be valuable to other countries as they work through their own complex histories. They may also hold clues to how to counter the rise of right-wing populism, discrimination, and hate-speech worldwide. Today more and more universities around Germany are launching critical studies of their involvement in the Nazi regime. It’s no secret that German and Austrian academic institutions fostered antiSemitic and nationalist attitudes among students in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Students embraced book burnings all over Germany. Faculties purged scientists with Jewish backgrounds from their ranks; by 1939, nearly 20 percent of university teachers in Germany alone had been fired – 1,200 in all – while more than 24 past and future Nobel laureates lost their research posts across the entire Reich. Perhaps less known is that, in addition to “nazifying” curricula, universities used forced labor during the war, performed “racial” studies, and experimented on concentration-camp prisoners.
Noting the rigor of the work of German (and international) academics on the Nazi past, other historians are drawing inspiration in their own fields. In the United States, for example, dozens of universities in recent years have launched initiatives to scrutinize their historic ties to slavery and the slave trade. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, was the first in the Ivy League to address the topic head on, forming its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003. The committee’s 107-page initial report (2006) also noted Germany’s efforts to atone for its crimes against humanity of 1933–45 in the postwar period. The sobering findings led Brown to launch a series of cultural and academic initiatives, on
campus and off, to give an accurate depiction of how the university profited from the slave trade. In a nod to German efforts to work off the past, the report’s authors wrote that “the struggle over retrospective justice is waged not only in courts and legislatures but also on the wider terrain of history and memory, in battles over textbooks and museum exhibitions, public memorials and popular culture.” Indeed, with a topic as fraught as the ongoing legacy of US slavery, understanding the German approach to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung could be quite valuable. “We still aren’t far enough along in our own culture of remembrance, frankly, to give other people advice,” stresses Professor Tenorth in Berlin. “But working off the past, whether at an institution of higher learning or elsewhere, is only productive when every single person is involved and all relevant research is examined closely. It goes that deep.” Tenorth notes that HU launched a rigorous, twenty-year-long review of its involvement in the Nazi regime after 1990, when Germany was reunified. Historians pored over archival mate-
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rials; staff members and students were involved; and the work has continued since the weighty two-volume study appeared in 2010 as part of a six-volume history of HU. Students and teachers have since delved deep into subtopics such as individual academic fields, student life, and other angles. That’s how it should be, stresses Tenorth. His institution – known as Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität at the time – was thoroughly enmeshed in Nazi culture from 1933 on. Its campus served as the site of one of the most infamous book burnings that year. The university’s Nazi ties only deepened as the years went on, so it has “practiced its working through the past with particular intensity,” Tenorth says. If other German universities took less extensive steps in the past, they are now revisiting their Nazi chapters with a new vigor. In Dresden, the decision to launch the new study came just a few months after psychologist Ursula Staudinger took the helm in August 2020. (See the interview on page 34.) “For us as a technical university,” she says, “it is particularly important to investigate whether and to what extent the technical sciences were also involved
in the crimes of the Nazi regime. We want to be very aware of our role in society. To do this, we need facts.” The findings, she says, “also illustrate the responsibility we have in the current social situation at the university and beyond it.” Others at the university see the project as a way to counter worrisome revisionist trends coming from right-wing political groups as well. According to Roswitha Böhm, TU Dresden’s vice rector for university culture, historians will focus on 1933 to 1945 while casting a wider net from the 1920s to the early 1970s. (Though the East German city was deep in the Cold-War era by then, that decade saw the retirement of the last university staff with connections to the Nazi era.) TU Dresden’s
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administration hopes the project will foster a frank conversation about history. The approach is particularly important in Dresden given the continued presence of Pegida, a political movement on the extreme right founded in 2014. Staudinger also emphasizes the importance of examining the institution’s history in the run-up to its bicentennial in 2028. In 2014, Goethe University of Frankfurt was criticized – by a member of its own faculty, Benjamin Ortmeyer, among others – for initially failing to highlight its Nazi past in centennial celebration plans. Ortmeyer later gave a speech at the centennial related to the 1938 doctorate the university had awarded to Josef Mengele, the “racial” researcher who became notorious for conducting medical experiments at Auschwitz. (In 2015, the
university also named a room on campus after the industrialist Adolf Messer, a member of the Nazi party who had profited from armaments contracts and forced labor. The university removed Messer’s name from the room in 2019 after students and teachers voiced strong objections.) Michael Grüttner, a historian at Technische Universität Berlin, is a leading scholar of the Nazi role of universities before and during World War II – and the way they have since addressed it. “Indeed, some have worked through their involvement thoroughly, others much less so,” he says. Grüttner sees four different phases in what he terms universities’ “policies” of dealing with the past. In the first phase, from the end of the war through the 1950s, most West German universities were partially or entirely dismantled by the Allied command as part of the denazification effort. Many academics spared their careers by painting themselves as victims of the Nazis. “The will to reflect self-critically on their own personal or institutional past was low,” Grüttner notes. The second phase began in the run-up to the West German student movement of the 1960s, Grüttner explains, when some students began to publish incriminating material about the Nazi-era writings of some of their professors. This extended into the 1970s. Painstaking historical research was hard to undertake at the time, however, as university files were often deliberately mothballed. In one extreme example, at the University of Göttingen, a former member of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary organization prevented access to certain university
documents until 1980. At other universities, files had either been burned by Nazi sympathizers shortly after 1945 – or simply vanished. And even when archives were on hand, young researchers in this phase still had to reckon with possible resistance – or even revenge – from their elders. A third phase began in the 1980s as more carefully researched papers gradually began to circulate. At first, they were put together by students and young researchers with the backing of trade unions and other organizations. But it was also the time of the first official interdisciplinary project; at the Universität Hamburg, files were made available by lifting a 60-year moratorium on personal archival materials. All in all, Grüttner notes, it took at least fifty years after Hitler’s rise to power before German educational institutions turned the spotlight on themselves. The fourth phase, which is still underway, began in the mid-1990s as serious research projects were published in much larger volume. During this phase, scandals involving certain inf luential
professors accelerated the process. Among these was Hans Ernst Schneider, a former SS officer and right-wing academic. Declared dead at the end of World War II, he then used the alias Hans Schwerte to become a prominent German-studies expert at universities in Erlangen and Aachen. According to Grüttner, major works on most German universities during the Nazi years have by now been published. The years 1933 to 1945 are often duly noted in general histories of universities as well – including in Jena, Freiburg, Leipzig, and other cities. “Studies on the history of individual disciplines, faculties, institutes, or even individual university teachers during the Third Reich have become almost impossible to overlook,” Grüttner says. “Overall the development since the 1990s has been positive,” he says. “Those who tried for years to slow down these historical investigations no longer play a role. And universities that have done little so far now feel under pressure to get going themselves.” And that might be the most basic lesson of all. In her 2019 book “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” the philosopher Susan Neiman traces the differences between Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung in Germany and the US. “Americans and others could use an example from someone else’s violent history to learn how to come to terms with our own,” writes the US national, who has been based in Berlin for years. Every nation has its own unique history, but the German lesson is in some ways universal. Even if a society cannot atone for its past crimes, it can at least show earnest willingness to examine them.
The town square in front of Mainz Central Station. The Bonifazius Towers rise 25 stories in the background
THE NET 56
How a modest scientific alliance in Mainz helped put BioNTech on the global research map BY EVA VON SCHAPER PHOTOS THOMAS PIROT
Two brilliant scientists, a company developing cancer drugs, and a pandemic. The story of how Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci – two Turkish immigrants to Germany – invented a Covid-19 vaccine in record time is well-known by now. But the unparalleled success of BioNTech is also part of a broader narrative that has quietly been taking shape in Mainz for years. Nestled along the river Rhine, the historic yet modest city of 217,000 is home to the Mainzer Wissenschaftsallianz, or Mainz Scientific Alliance. This powerful research network has been forging connections behind the scenes since it was founded in 2008. Bringing together universities, scientific institutes, and companies in and around Mainz, the alliance has aimed to strengthen the city as a center of scientific activity and increase its visibility as an economic region well beyond the German state of RhinelandPalatinate. The network became a nonprofit association in 2013. Today, it consists of 22 institutes from various fields. Its members include such research heavyweights as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Leibniz Institute of European History, the Johannes Gutenberg 57
At the heart of Mainz, the famous Höfchen leads onto Gutenbergplatz
University Mainz (JGU) and its affiliated University Medical Center Mainz, and companies including BioNTech and the pharmaceuticals giant Boehringer Ingelheim. And those are just a few of the headliners. Even museums such as Mainz’s Natural History Museum and the Roman-Germanic Central Museum, an archaeological research institute, have joined the ranks and are eager to contribute. Ulrich Förstermann, chief scientific officer and dean of the University Medical Center Mainz, notes that the city has been home to some of Europe’s top immunological research groups for more than four decades. Mainz’s sustained support for basic research is a factor that has allowed members of the alliance to flourish over time. BioNTech is a case in point. While the media often cast it as an overnight success, its Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough was in fact the 58
logical outcome of Mainz’s hard-won reputation as a longstanding hub for immunological research. “The fact that BioNTech is now known globally is, of course, a reflection of the University Medical Center Mainz,” Förstermann explains. BioNTech exemplifies what Germans in the R&D world refer to as an “außeruniversitäre Ausgründung,” a spin-off with roots in German academia. BioNTech may be Mainz’s most prominent example of a scientific offshoot, but it’s not the only one. Krishnaraj Rajalingam, 44, is one of the city’s newest biotechnology founders. The KHR Biotech GmbH managing director is also a professor at the medical center, where he heads its cell biology unit. Rajalingam hails from the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India and grew up in modest circumstances. (His home village, Sitharkadu, has a name that “you can’t pronounce,” he says.) Networking
helped him launch his career in Germany. More than two decades ago, he raised his hand at a UNESCO summer school for students in Greece. That connected him to Berlin-based researcher Thomas F. Meyer, who later invited him to intern at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin in 2000. He’s been in Germany ever since, picking up many coveted awards and fellowships along the way. In 2007, he became one of the first people from South Asia to be selected for the prestigious Emmy Noether Programme of the Deutsche Forschungs-
gemeinschaft (DFG), the German Research Foundation. “I have to say, with all due modesty, that I got all the best one can have in an academic, scientific career in Germany,” he admits. Rajalingam came to Mainz in 2014, when he won a Heisenberg professorship in cell biology at Mainz University Medical Center’s newly opened Paul Klein Center for Immune Intervention. He moved from nearby Frankfurt, where he’d been working at the Goethe University School of Medicine. He had no plans at the time to become an entrepreneur. But his research into how cells die, migrate, and communicate with each other gave him insight into how certain cancers might originate, sparking an idea for developing a cancer drug. “My research colleagues and I saw an opportunity to help the patients,” he says. “But I couldn’t do this in academia. Sitting in academia, I can only think about the next paper, the next grant.” Lacking the funding and time needed to run a company, Rajalingam teamed up with Indivumed GmbH, a company that has been collaborating with University Medical Center Mainz for years. It is just one example of how the Mainz research connection works: silently and informally, yet efficiently. Together they created KHR Biotech, a biopharmaceutical venture that combines Rajalingam’s research and scientific rigor with Indivumed’s database and AI capabilities to rapidly advance new cancer drugs. Rajalingam says making connections at scientific conferences and through research collaborations helped him clear some typical start-up hurdles, which in Germany can be formidable. “Thankfully, I had all these contacts and the right industrial part-
Professor Krishnaraj Rajalingam in a small park on the grounds of University Medical Center Mainz
ners,” he says. “Collaborations are key for successful scientific pursuit.” According to Michael Maskos, chairman of the Mainzer Wissenschaftsallianz and head of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s Institute for Microengineering and Microsystems, one of the alliance’s biggest benefits is its own members’ eagerness to
cooperate. And this is evident even at the most basic of levels. Scholars at JGU’s department of ancient oriental studies, for example, were able to bring a mighty 3D scanner supplied by the Helmholtz Institute Mainz on a research trip to an archaeological site in Iran in 2019 to scan and help decipher ancient 59
Mainz was crowned the City of Science in 2011. It is also a city of many cafés
cuneiform tablets. The Wissenschaftsallianz had quietly brought the two institutions together. Maskos stresses, however, that the consortium isn’t yet seeking to achieve behemoth proportions. And it would be a lot to take on if it were. The Mainz alliance still pales in comparison to UnternehmerTUM, a start-up support network set up by 60
the Technische Universität München, which imitates the US incubator model. “We are thinking in somewhat smaller dimensions,” Maskos explains. It’s “a stroke of luck,” he adds, that so many factors came together for BioNTech – financial backers, a top-notch research climate, and the role of the University Medical Center. “In and of themselves,
these factors make it fair to single out Mainz as a special location,” he says. The residents of Mainz and their enthusiasm factor in, too. When the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, an association that promotes science and the humanities in Germany, crowned Mainz the “City of Science 2011,” city officials followed up on that success with theme years. And since 2015, the Mainzer Wissenschaftsallianz has organized an annual series of public events around a central theme, seeking to answer a straightforward question: how can Mainz’s scientific success benefit residents? One possible answer came with the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2020 theme, People and Truth, hit close to home as debates about the coronavirus heated up across Germany. This year’s focus is on People and Health. Meanwhile BioNTech, which reaped 2 billion euros in revenue in the first three months of 2021 alone, has achieved extraordinary worldwide recognition. This may give Mainz and the surrounding region a boost with both current and prospective residents. “Highly qualified jobs have been created and are still being created,” says Förstermann, the medical center’s dean. And those job opportunities could in turn attract more budding scientists to the region from around the world. The state government’s recent decision to place an even stronger emphasis on biotech R&D could help too. With the coronavirus pandemic as the backdrop, the ruling Social Democratic Party homed in on research areas including cardiovascular diseases, mental health, and cancer research in announcing the new focus. And it explicitly mentioned JGU’s University Medical Center as a key player.
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Settling into any new country isn’t easy. Foreign students, past and present, share their tips for navigating life, on and off campus BY MADELEINE POLL ARD PHOTOS PAULINA HILDESHEIM
presentations with my peers on the differences between Mexican Spanish and Iberian Spanish. The students in these courses were so aufgeschlossen (open-minded) and interested in other cultures. – Alex
Personal Photos: Florian Thoss, Deryne Keretic, private
Insist on speaking German I didn’t realize how hard it would be to practice German here. I knew my studies were going to be in English, but I was expecting a balance between both. When I speak German, people usually reply in English. I was hoping to be in an environment where I’d be more exposed and forced to learn the language. When I was studying in Russia, very few people spoke English. You had to learn Russian if you wanted to understand the professors and express yourself. I attended German classes when I arrived in summer 2020. Our teacher told us to get out more, meet in groups, visit museums. But then everything closed due to Covid-19. There were no interactions and no way to truly practice. But German is a language that I adore and really want to learn. I guess it comes with time. – Bonaventure
Max out on classes In the US, there is an 18-credit system at most universities. If you take more than 18 credits in
Think outside the box
any given semester, you have to pay for the extra credits. Here, that is not the case at all. There are so many affordable language courses at the universities, which can cost around 50 euros for an entire semester. I took Spanish
Bonaventure Dossou, 23, from Cotonou, Benin, is a master’s student in data engineering at Jacobs University Bremen
refresher courses, and this was great for socializing, too, because I met so many cool Germans. They weren’t interested in practicing their English with me, which is otherwise often the case on campus. It was super fun preparing
Alex Swanson, 28, from Bellevue, Nebraska, US, has a master’s degree in politics, economics, and philosophy from the University of Hamburg
I wish someone had told me I could get a bachelor’s degree in Germany. I moved to Berlin as an au pair when I was 17. I loved the country so much that I wanted to stay and study English literature. But a career advisor said to me, “Why would you study English literature in Germany? You’re from an English-speaking country; why not go home to do it?” So I went back to Scotland for an undergrad degree in English literature and German language and later applied for an Erasmus year at the University of Freiburg. And now, I am back again, studying towards a master’s degree in Berlin. – Olivia
Knock on wood At the end of every lesson, students knock on the desk to thank the professor. The first time this
Olivia Logan, 25, from Edinburgh, Scotland, is a master’s student in English literature at HumboldtUniversität zu Berlin 63
happened in a class I attended, I had no idea what was going on. Now I really like that people thank the teacher for the seminar. It’s a nice tradition. Though I’m not knocking on my own desk after Zoom classes each day. – Olivia
as the Germans say: the power of Beziehungen (personal connections). – Alex
Remember your passwords Once, I forgot my password for my health insurance card and was unable to connect through the digital platform. Normally when this happens, there is a “forgot password” button. You enter your email address and reset it. This wasn’t possible. I had to wait five days for the health insurance company to send me a new password by paper mail. Germans do just love paperwork. – Bonaventure
Keep an eye on store opening hours There’s the funny notion that Germans never work on Sundays. Sometimes you want to go out and get something to eat, but every store is closed. I had to learn that the week is from Monday to Saturday in Germany. – Bonaventure
Embrace customer (dis)service One thing I like about Germany is the lack of customer service. There’s a great saying in this country: Der Kunde ist König, aber Deutschland ist eine Republik (the customer is king but Germany is a republic). In the UK, you sometimes get this Americanized customer service, which is very false and overly friendly in my opinion. German customer service is the total antithesis of that. I think I’ll always prefer that to the fakeness. – Olivia
Note exam dates and deadlines I wish I had known how to plan better for exams. At many German unis, for each course you take there are two possible exam dates per semester, which was really new to me. Be aware: content generally is harder if you choose the second exam date. In the US, there is one date for a final exam for a course and that’s it. Here, the choice of dates can be 64
confusing, and it can be difficult to plan your studying around your other courses. A week before the first exam date, however, you can still cancel and reschedule for the second without needing to give a reason. Even on the day itself, the proctor will ask if you feel mentally well enough to take the exam. If you don’t, you can raise your hand and postpone it to the second date. Though most likely, you will need to get a doctor’s note to back up your claim. – Alex
Be mad for the Mensa At the University of Freiburg, I was obsessed with the Mensa, the campus cafeteria. It just blew my mind! They have a huge hall, and everyone congregates there every day, and the food is so cheap. I also decided to become a vegan when I moved to Freiburg, because it’s the so-called
green city of Germany. And they had amazing, affordable vegan meals. – Olivia
Get a student job The role of the Studentische Hilfskraft (student assistant) is super important. It’s a paid position at universities, often in the department where you’re studying. It’s a great way to network with your professors. It also grants you an Arbeitszeugnis. This is a work certificate that acts as a job reference, which will be helpful if you plan to work in Germany after your studies. Working as a Studentische Hilfskraft can also get you a foot in the door as a Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (research assistant) once you graduate. A lot of these academic jobs are advertised through word of mouth or on notice boards. It’s very oldschool and all about Vitamin B,
Make a checklist and a time line for your move to Germany. Otherwise, all the steps may overwhelm you. The most important thing is to find a place to live and then register your address with a Meldebestätigung; this document is required for everything from opening a bank account to applying for health insurance. You’ll need to set up a so-called blocked bank account that has a consistent amount of money in it (in 2021, the minimum was 10,332 euros) to prove that you can afford to live in Germany. Depending on where you’re from, you may need a student visa, but you can often enter with a tourist visa and apply for one once you arrive. To secure the all-important residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel), you’ll need all the above, including university documents. Expect it to get a little chaotic: every Bezirk (district) has its own system, and everyone you speak to will give different advice. Join an expat group to vent your frustrations. It’ll all work out in the end, and it feels great once you’ve got it sorted. – Alex
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