Amis and Abis: Roadblocks to Getting your Bachelor’s Degree in Germany

Source: Felix Kästle/dpa (c)

Source: Felix Kästle/dpa (c)

My student advising service, Eight Hours and Change, was recently featured in a story on National Public Radio’s Marketplace in a story that discussed the German university system. The main takeaway from this piece for most readers and listeners in America was the astonishing revelation that German universities are (mostly) tuition-free, and, as a result, I’ve been inundated with inquiries from every state and several territories.

For bachelor-seeking students, this can be an awkward conversation. After confirming that the vast majority of subjects can be studied at minimal cost, I have to move on to the caveat. Yes, its possible for Americans to study here for free, but that doesn’t mean everyone can do it.

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Resist the Ramen: Financing your Student Life in Germany

So you’ve heard the good news: you can get your university degree for free in Germany. It almost seems too good to be true, an education from a highly-respected institution of higher learning, the opportunity to learn and grow without the stress of thousands of dollars in student debt awaiting you upon graduation. But while the terror of tuition no longer mars the pristine German university landscape, that doesn’t mean your study experience will be free; you still need to pony up for food, rent and recreation. Here are a few ways that you can cover your living expenses as a student in Germany.

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A Pseudo-European Teenager Goes to Texas

Our eldest has been in Texas for the past year attending high school, after spending most of her life in Europe – some in Ireland, but mostly in Germany. She is sixteen, and with that comes the sixteen-year-old way of looking at the world.  She’s been back for a week, and after announcing that she no longer speaks German, she seems to be settling in okay. And yes, she does still speak German. You can’t lose it that easily!

When she moved to Texas, there were a couple of things that she was worried about. She only knew American high school from movies: cliques, sports, cheerleaders, nerds, etc. German school is just not like that. The stratifications are not so clear, and the groups are not so defined. I told her that it might really be like the movies. And when she started school she said, “It’s like Save the Last Dance!” My daughter is in a high school near Dallas that is very diverse. I think the non-white portion of the school is something like 90%. Heidelberg is also diverse, but not in the same way. She was scared to death of the bus — she told me they called her “Snowflake” — but I think in the end she fits in in a way that she didn’t expect. Growing up in Europe, she didn’t have any experience with American race issues, again except for movies. She didn’t grow up with the stereotypes about black people, or white people, or Mexicans, or whomever. We are pretty liberal in our house politically. I think landing in this school in Texas was a huge shock, but it was also an amazing chance for her. She has friends across all groups of kids, black, white, Christian,  Hispanic, straight, and gay. And she is surviving and thriving. Continue reading

What, you work full time?

Both Jane and I have mentioned the concept of the Rabenmutter, which is defined in the Wikidictionary as “A raven mother, a loveless, heartless, cruel, unnatural, or uncaring mother; a bad mother who does not take good care of her children.” Now no one has dared ever call me that directly, but I have most certainly gotten that vibe off of various mothers in various schools that my children attend, and even from people who themselves aren’t parents! For the most part, I shrug it off. Everyone makes their choices and every person should be able to raise their family the way that works for them. But sometimes, it gets to me.

The last time I got this impression was from a woman in her late fifties that is a sort of acquaintance of mine. A good friend sometimes meets up with other women for a Stammtisch at the Greek restaurant she owns and she often invites me along to spice up the evening (these ladies are not always especially stimulating). This person does work and I am not sure whether she worked when her child(ren) were small, but as soon as I told her about my new job — which I love, by the way, and which is full time — she said, “Was machst Du mit den Kindern?” (What do you do with the kids all day?) That ruffled my feminist feathers. It sounds like I am sending them out into the street while I am being selfish and going off to work.

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Einschulung

In one my last posts, I mentioned that our family was preparing for my oldest child to start school this year. I know it is a big deal in most countries, but in Germany, I think it is an even bigger deal, partly because the first day is wonderfully ritualized by such things as a special church service, an informal reception at the school during the first graders’ very first hour of school, and a peak inside the classroom and chance to take loads of pictures while the kids are there. It’s usually a family affair in the league of birthdays and holidays including the extended family. Often a special lunch is organized either at home or at a restaurant followed by Kaffee und Kuchen.

Fuss surrounds the new Schulkind (school child) as everyone excitedly files into the church hall or school building for that momentous first day of school. And one of the props in addition to the lovingly selected Schulranzen that crowns this moment is the Schultüte. Loosely translated, a Schultüte is a decorated cone made out of cardboard that is filled with sweets, school supplies, small books and other treats to celebrate the day. First citations of the Schultüte were made from eastern Germany in the early nineteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia) Every picture of a German schoolchild on the first day of school includes her or him proudly holding up a Schultüte.

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International schools: going local or not

Of the many considerations and decisions we have to make as expats, ones regarding education for our kids can be amongst the most challenging. What’s available where we are has made the decision for us whenever we came to that juncture. While we were still living in San Diego, our oldest was going to attend a German immersion charter school in San Diego. San Diego doesn’t otherwise have a Deutsche Schule but amazingly has the Albert Einstein Academies, the aforementioned immersion charter school.

Since we moved back to Germany before our daughter matriculated, she’s had another year of Kindergarten for us to consider the path to set on. We currently live more than an hour away from the next large city, Stuttgart, which now has three international schools. My husband and I didn’t feel that for this stage of the game (grade school) there was any reason that anybody had to make the big sacrifice of commuting in order for her to attend an international school. There is also a relatively new (about eight years old) international school in a smaller city closer to us that we keep in mind as an option for the future, but we’ve been made wary by stories from other expat families with older kids. Basically, the quality of teaching as well as administrative organization is not the greatest, especially for the older and newer grades since in a lot of cases, the school is still figuring things out.

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A German Education

I am going to attempt to explain the German education system in the simplest terms possible. For those with further education who can handle the exceptions, I have listed them at the end.

When a child is born in Germany, it has the right to a place in a daycare from the age of one year, starting in 2012. Daycare is referred to as Kinderkrippe, Kleinkindbetreuung or Kindertagespflege, although the latter only refers to the care of children in private homes with a Tagesmutter, not to a daycare center.

From the age of 3 years until they are old enough to start first grade (usually age six by the end of September), children attend Kindergarten. Kindergarten in Germany is usually mixed-age preschool and American “kindergarten” all jumbled together. The preschools on offer are almost all publicly subsidized, and fees vary in each city. Often the fees reduce with the number of children you have (and they don’t even have to be attending preschool), sometimes are linked to your income, or taken from a table based on the number of hours your child attends. There are preschools that are half-day, some are all-day, some serve lunch and some do not. The good ones have a waiting list, and for the most part, parents wishing for their children to start after their 3rd birthday need to get them registered at preschool by February of that year.  The number of spots varies from state to state – in Baden-Württemberg, space is tight, especially in Stuttgart. In Berlin, there is much more on offer. Continue reading

Online Lifelines

Remember that time not long ago when long-distance phone calls were reserved for special occasions? Your uncle on the other side of the country would get a nice three minute phone call on his birthday, and your grandmother across the ocean could expect a quick “Merry Christmas” once a year.  Oh how far we have come.  Now with new cable and internet technologies, long distance communication is no longer the family-gathered-’round-the-phone occasion it once was.

Yesterday, as my mother walked me through how to prepare the perfect Easter ham from her respective kitchen miles and miles away via Skype, I considered what it must have been like for expats living so far from their family and friends, just a couple decades ago, before the internet, email, and social media.

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