When I went to my first football game in the fall, I was thrilled. It was the beginning of my semester abroad at Stony Brook University and the beginning of my time here in America. So since it was the beginning, I hardly knew anybody except other exchange students, and mostly those that were also from Europe. We all went together, we all wore red, and some of us had painted Seawolves on our cheeks. Being from Germany, where we don’t have sport teams that play against other universities, this game was a massive event for me. So many students came, there was a marching band with cheerleaders wearing a uniforms and the national anthem was sung. I was amazed, as were my fellow Europeans. We ecstatically watched the game start and tried to follow the ball and the runners as closely as possible. However, the procedure would not unveil itself to us at first, so we kept watching and marveling. When it was halftime, a friend from Brazil said to me “This is like in the movies!!” and I heartily agreed. It was like in the movies. I have never experienced college life like this before and I would like to explain how it is different.
First of all, in German universities, we do not have a campus. Institutions for higher education in big cities are usually quite old, and so are their main buildings. The main building of my university, the University of Bonn, is a Baroque castle. Since generally only one department has room in those buildings, the other departments are scattered all over the city, much like NYU. So if you live in one of the dorms, it is quite unlikely that you can walk to class; the math building might be up the hill, while economics is down by the river and your dorm is in the historic center. However, there are a great number of buses and trains, which students can use for free with their college ID. As a side note, this is quite necessary and is a given in most cities, since students do not have cars. I literally knew exactly four people that had a car.
So if a university does not have a campus, it can also be assumed that we also do not have a campus life quite like at SBU. Activities and events organized by the university are rare and need a formal occasion like graduation or a politician giving a speech. There is never an opportunity for free food, there are no concerts and clubs do not get any funding. We do have clubs and student associations. However, they mostly have a connection to an organization outside of university, which is where they get funding and guidance. For example, political parties usually have a college branch, or Amnesty International and UNESCO do, too. Also, students run associations entirely on their own, like the student council, the student representation, or the university newspapers.
It does give the impression that a university as an institution almost leaves students alone. This becomes even more apparent when it comes to the accessibility of professors and lecturers. If a student does not understand the material discussed in class, missed a lecture, or did not print the readings, do not think about asking your professor. Get it done yourself or ask other students. If—and only if—you absolutely do not understand, you can ask your professor’s assistant. Teaching methods in Germany are also different. The principle of curving does not exist. If a class average is 30 percent, the students have to take the class again next year until they pass. If the professor happens to be very kind, he might ask a graduate student to give tutorial classes.
The best way to explain this behavior toward the students that could almost be seen as ignorance is to mention that we do not pay tuition. In Germany, we pay an administration fee, with is ridiculously small compared to American standards. A university is a state institution and gets all its funding from the government. This is also why we do not have a stadium, a theater, a power plant, or cleaning service in the dorms. Furthermore, living costs are reduced by subsidies. Therefore, rooms in the dorms, which are never ever shared by the way, cost around a fifth of what they cost here, lunch is around 2 – 3€ ($2.60 – 4.00), and students can use public transportation.
Other essential aspects of college life are classes and exams. I had my very first multiple-choice exam last fall. Although Germany has been changing the old university system to bachelor and master’s programs, the majority of politicians, professors and students are reluctant to introduce multiple choice exams. Final exams are either an oral interrogation for about 15 minutes, or an essay on one or two questions about a certain aspect of the material discussed in class.
Sometimes, especially in social sciences, we can choose to write a 25-page research paper about a detailed question the students have to come up with themselves. We also do not have midterms, which is the reason for classes becoming increasingly fuller by the end of the semester.
With the changing to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, German university programs were meant to become more interdisciplinary. This was more or less successful. It is not required to take classes from other departments; it is only advised. So it can happen that students with a biology major did not take a single class that is not related to biology by the time they graduate. When my American friends at SBU tell me about their theatre or art history classes, I almost every time ask them if they got a minor and why art history. This is also why it is difficult to apply to a graduate program that is not the same as your undergraduate program. If it is better to educate students in only one or two subjects or in a variety of areas is debatable.
The bottom line is this: not paying tuition creates a trade-off. Students get less from their respective universities, but this makes them more independent concerning their studies. This also becomes visible with the fact that we do not have half-time or full-time students. Whether a student wants to take two classes this semester or 12 does not matter to anyone. However, what is missing is a university identity or university pride—the feeling of being part of a community.
I think that the German and American notions of what a university is are fundamentally different. In Germany, universities are institutions of learning, and the college lifestyle happens outside university territory. Going to college in America is more life consuming, since everything happens on campus. It almost has a capitalist connotation to it.