OBW Report: Dreams Come True

Home Univeristy: Queen’s University
Host University: Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Period of stay: Sept 2008-July 2009

Eleven years ago, I first arrived in Heidelberg on a summery day in June. I was nine then, wasn’t interested in school nor the prospect of going to university – not to mention that I didn’t think I was smart enough for it in the first place. Based on what I had heard of German universities, I was frightened off by the thought of going to university, as I thought one would have to study for 8-10 years (at least)! ‘What a boring life, imprisoned in academics!’ I thought. Yet I remember thinking how I would love to live in Heidelberg. Ironically, eleven years later, the very university that had initially intimidated me and hate university, has now encouraged and inspired me to continue my studies!

During this exchange year, I met people from all over the world, learned about history and culture from primary sources, travelled around Europe, and even had the privilege of seeing the Chancellor Angela Merkel in Heidelberg!

Scholarship (a.k.a. Financial Support)

This is the first topic because without financial support, I would not have been able to study in Germany, let alone for a whole year (i.e. 11 months). Thus, I was blessed to have the DAAD Undergraduate Scholarship, which certainly took an enormous burden off my shoulders! Yes, it is difficult to get, but you can still try!

I have lost my heart in Heidelberg

A student town with an American base, Heidelberg is like Kingston. I chose Heidelberg for its beautiful landscape — the green hills and the long Neckar River — mixed with baroque architecture. For one of the important things when choosing an academic setting is to choose a place where one can receive excellent education, have fun, and relax. Heidelberg is the second warmest place in Germany (after Freiburg-im-Breisgau), so if you’re looking to escape those horrid winters of Canada, this is the place to be. (Please note that this Winter 2008/9 was an exception around the world. It snowed, temperatures dropped to -20C and the river froze – something that hasn’t happened for more than a decade!)

Life at the University of Heidelberg
Established in 1386, it is the oldest university in Germany

The academic year is divided into two semesters: Winter (Oct-Jan) and Summer (Apr-Jul). This means that you will have to arrive at the end of August to move in, spend September on an immersion course, and start uni in October. You will have a two month break in between semesters, a time for you to travel or to finish a paper. Then you will continue on with summer semester, and soon, you’ll find yourself on a plane back home! 🙁

I did my month-long immersion course at the Max-Weber-Haus, the perfect setting to study, as each room has a splendid view of the Altstadt. I was very lucky to have an entertaining and multilingual professor, who not only taught us grammar but also told us stories. I also had the opportunity to get to know most of my classmates, as well as others in all levels.

The next point is perhaps the most important and the one that will make you want to pull your hair out until everything is crystal clear. How many courses should we take? Or do we pick the number of courses based on the number of contact hours or the number of ECTS needed for two semesters (i.e. 60 ECTS)? In Germany, we were told that a student would take 10-12 hours per week in class – and as each course is roughly 2 hours/week, that would mean 5-6 courses per semester. However, not every course has a set ECTS value, and those that do aren’t always worth a minimum of 6 ECTS.

Since the immersion course in September was worth a full year’s credit at my home uni (Queen’s), I decided I’d take 5 courses per semester. (Please check with your home uni for their requirements!) Despite having so much free time, these courses can keep you pretty busy as German universities emphasise independent study. Perhaps you won’t have homework everyday or weekly quizzes and monthly tests that count towards your final grade, but that means you need to do well on your one and only exam (and essay).

PUNCTUALITY: The Germans can’t emphasise more on this point. Your buses and trams are usually on-time, so be sure not to show up late to class. Yes, there is no “main campus”, so you will have to calculate how long it takes to get from point A to point B. Equally important is picking courses with dining times in mind. If you want to make sure you have time (and a spot) to eat at the Mensa (cafeteria), be aware that the Germans tend to have lunch at 13.00 and dinner at 20.00. Even if you’re the fastest eater and you have 30 minutes until your next class, you never know if you’ll be stuck in a 15-min. line-up to the food!

Living Arrangement

Before I arrived in Heidelberg, the Studentenwerk (not the uni) sent us a residence request form. I didn’t find out until the day of arrival that I was to be living Im Neuenheimer Feld, where the second campus is. I lived in a 4-room WG (flat/apartment) with a German flatmate and other internationals. Although we communicated in English at first, we eventually switched to German once everyone was fluent. The rent we paid was “warm” – that means everything (rent + utilities + internet) was included in the monthly rent, which was automatically withdrawn from our bank accounts.

Social Life
Looking at the world through others’ spectacles

Aside from academics, one should still have fun! One concern is if we’ll be able to mingle with the locals and our German classmates. The truth is, it can be quite difficult. As Heidelberg is a very touristy city, most of the locals can speak English. In fact, quite often, they will speak to you in England if they can tell you’re 1) not from Germany and 2) struggling with German. Be persistent with your German and they’ll see how determined you are in improving your German skills. As for classmates, unless you’re always working with or talking to them, it might be easier to get to know them in social settings, such as parties, football matches on TV, “clubs”/fraternities, and excursions. You might find, however, that you’ll have more international friends, but that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate in German! During these social times, you learn so much more about other cultures, and, you may be surprised to learn more about your own through their observations!

A Project Fulfilled

My major reason for wanting to study in Germany was more personal than academic or career (though they relate to each other). I had always wanted to speak German fluently so that I could communicate with my German Oma (grandmum) in her mother tongue. I loved learning about her life in Germany and wanted to trace my family roots. When Oma passed away in 2007, I was devastated, but she left me with an abundance of old photos, as well as letters from her relatives in Germany. So, I set out on a mission to find her relatives and to learn more about life in Germany. I began to write to her relatives and soon I was on the train to Hamburg and Dresden. And since my relatives couldn’t speak English, my German dramatically improved. I learned about what the Dresden bombings of 13-14th February 1945 were like, and about Eastern German life during and after the DDR. I even visited my great-grandmother’s hometown, Olbernhau, as well as locate the grave of my great-uncle in Kraków, Poland. (During my trip in Poland, I visited both Auschwitz camps, as well as the Jewish Quarter in Kraków.) There were things that I would have never learned about in history books. It was a privilege to have these primary sources and the opportunity to discover Germany and its neighbours.

So, whether or not you have German heritage, if you have a dream, pursue it. If there’s something you really want to do, even if it seems impossible, just try. What have you to lose anyway?

Special Thanks

I would like to thank Queen’s for selecting me to be part of the OBW programme and for their continual support!
Thank you to OBW and DAAD for the opportunity to study abroad, the financial support, as well as the chances to discover Germany and to meet other exchange students!
I would also like to thank God for granting my wishes and for watching over me. Without You, I would not be here today.
Thank you Dad & Mum for encouraging me throughout my life. Because of you, I’m not afraid to try!
And of course, thank you Oma for all the years of love you shared that instilled my love for the German language and Germany. Ich liebe und vermisse dich!