09 May, 2015

My First Weeks as a German Student

It's been quite a while since my last post. I had planned to write at least weekly posts detailing my adjustment to Hildesheim and the student life in Germany, but I didn't count on one crucial factor: this new life is exhausting! The first week, when I just had to go to the first meeting of each class and felt good about the amount of chatting (in German!) that I was doing with my classmates, everything went fine. But once I settled into the routine of my classes, had to do homework and had to manage my entire life in German, everything started catching up with me. I only have one or two classes a day, but Tuesday through Friday my first class starts at 8:15 or 8:30am. That means I have to wake up at 6:20, which anyone who knows me will tell you is very difficult for me. The combination of waking up early and managing my classes and day-to-day life in German has me exhausted, and even with a good night's sleep I've started napping almost every afternoon. Now that it's the weekend and I've been able to sleep in, I feel like it's time to get back on the horse and finally blog again.

For my first post in almost a month, I'll introduce you to my university. As I mentioned in a previous post, the university I am attending is called the Stiftung Universität Hildesheim. It is nowhere near as beautiful as my alma mater Mount Holyoke, but here are some pictures of the campus anyway.

View from outside the main "ring" of buildings on the main campus.

Inner courtyard of the main campus.

This is the brand new administrative building on the main campus. I've had to go here quite often to get bureaucratic non-sense figured out (i.e. to make people do their jobs!).
This is the campus where I have most of my classes, called the Bühler-Campus. It's about a 10 minute walk from the main campus and consists of this building and one other, which is ugly so I didn't take a picture of it.
As you can see, the buildings were not built to be nice to look at. Like most universities in Germany, it's public, so the funding comes from tax money and not from rich families paying big bucks to educate their children. This means that some of the things we take for granted from American universities, like nice buildings and competent staff, are not to be found here.

Following up on the competent staff comment, the level of service here from the offices that students are forced to deal with is abysmal. Because of German labor laws, public employees, including university staff, can almost never be fired, so many of them get lazy. If they can get away with not doing something for you, they won't do it, and if you want even something basic done you have to argue your case. I have had nothing but issues and drama with everything related to the university administration. I don't feel like going into the whole drama-fest right now (I already wrote about some of the details), but here's the outline. First of all, I didn't get my official acceptance letter, which I needed to start preparing things like health insurance and housing, until two weeks before the enrollment deadline. By the time I finally got enrolled (after the deadline, of course, because two weeks is not enough time!), it was several days before classes started and I had missed the registration deadline. Since then I have had to fight a few more times with the enrollment office about various things, including an incident in which all I needed was a signature on two pieces of paper confirming that I am a student at the university and the woman in the office flat-out refused.

In general, I have gotten very little information from the administration about how things work around here. When I received my acceptance letter, that was literally what I received: a one-page letter stating that I was accepted and telling me where to send the money and enrollment forms. In the US I would have gotten a huge packet with all sorts of information about enrollment, orientation, services, classes, etc, etc. No such thing here. No one even told me that I had to get my student ID card specially activated at the library to check out books and use the lockers. I found that out by accident when I tried to lock one of the library lockers with my card and it didn't work. I had to ask another student what was going on and she filled me in.

I suppose you get what you pay for (I'm only paying a few hundred euros per semester), but it's still very disappointing. Coming from the American system of great service, it's very frustrating to feel like the university doesn't care about me at all. In addition to all the issues I described above, the university also somehow failed to realize that I'm an international student and forgot to invite me to the international student orientation. I didn't even find out about it until it was over. And the one time I emailed the international office with questions, the woman took six weeks to respond, and when she did, she didn't even remotely answer my questions. I don't even think she read my email.

I guess this is something that I will have to get used to. I was going to write that I hope things get better, but I have no hope anymore that the offices here are going to do anything for me willingly. I don't know what those office employees do all day, because they certainly aren't helping the students. How can they when they only allow students in on Tuesdays and Thursday from 9:30-12?

Aside from the horrendous administration, my classes are mostly good. I'm taking eight classes, which I know sounds like a lot at first, but it's actually fewer than most people in my program are taking. This number of classes is manageable because they each meet only once a week for an hour and a half. It seems like it will be difficult to learn anything when the classes meet so infrequently, but I guess that's how things are done here. (At Mount Holyoke, most classes met twice a week, some even met 3 or 4 times a week, and the classes that met once a week were three hours long.) I like the language-oriented classes, especially the translation ones, but the tech-oriented ones are not so great. I lack a lot of necessary background information for this type of technical and engineering focus, and to make matters worse, my least favorite class is an engineering class at 8:15 on Friday morning. I hate sitting through that class.

That's the update for now. Despite the negative experiences with the university administration, in general I am enjoying it here. Plus, even with eight classes my workload is nowhere near as hard as at Mount Holyoke, so I have more free time to do what I want with. Hopefully that means I'll manage more frequent blog posts again!

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