27 May, 2014

Congratulations, Class of 2014! (Wait, what?)

Among American college students and their families, mid-May is a hectic time. It's the end of the academic year, the start of summer, and for those students who have completed their degrees, GRADUATION! Seemingly all month long my Facebook newsfeed has been filled with pictures of happy graduates in cap and gown enjoying the various boring and not-so-boring events that inevitably go along with obtaining a college degree.

Pictures such as this... Taken at my graduation in May 2012.

Those pictures have all, without exception, been posted by people graduating in the United States. The celebration, pomp and circumstance that surround graduation seem to be a wholly American invention. In Germany, graduation from a university is not nearly as celebrated. There is no huge ceremony attended by all graduates, their families, their friends, and their cousin's friend's neighbor. As far as I can gather, graduation ceremonies in Germany are just for those graduating and their families (and they don't wear those silly hats [see photo above]). The ceremonies are fairly small and, in contrast to the average American graduation, the normal operation of the university doesn't come to a screeching halt to accommodate the festivities. Not everyone finishes their studies in the spring, so a ceremony in the spring wouldn't make sense, and sometimes final exams don't even happen until the next semester has already started. A student's studies simply end after the last exam is over, and he or she moves on to the next adventure in life.

This American obsession with graduation is simply one component of a vastly different university culture than what exists in Germany. In the US, loyalty to one's alma mater is very strong; people are proud of the school they attended and often continue to support it long after they have left. The level of loyalty to one's graduating class is also very high. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2012, and I feel strong loyalty to both my alma mater and my class year. If and when I go back to Mount Holyoke someday for Reunions (the gathering of alumnae that happens at the same time as graduation every year), I will proudly wear my class color (blue) and chant "twenty-twelve" with the rest of my classmates. And I am certainly not alone. The vast majority of Americans I know who have attended college feel a strong connection to their school and their class year. I have a friend who attended Mount Holyoke with me, and when she was told that she had to be reclassified from class of 2012 to class of 2013 and that she couldn't participate in the 2012 graduation ceremony, she was devastated.

Things are quite different here in Germany. There is basically zero class unity, as far as I can tell. People do not refer to themselves by their year of graduation as they might in the US, but instead mention how many semesters they have studied so far. (Semesters are more important here than academic years, and the breaks between semesters are not as long or as clear.) People are much more likely to relate to and identify themselves by their department or field of study than simply the university they attended or what years they happened to attend.

I'm struggling to explain why this is. What can justify the vast cultural difference here? Maybe the pride in one's university that is so deeply felt in America comes from a time when very few people obtained degrees and they were really something out of the ordinary to celebrate. But wasn't that previously also the case in Germany? Maybe it's because Americans have to pay so much for the education they receive. But why would that in itself be a reason for so much loyalty, when the school has bled you dry for 4+ years? (Also interesting to note: in Germany, when so much money changes hands for a degree, the common belief is that you simply bought the degree and didn't have to work for it.) Maybe it's because most American college students live on campus, and the college really becomes home for them for 4 years.

I won't spend too much brain power trying to figure out the why. Personally, I could have done without a large pompous ceremony to celebrate my own graduation, but on the other hand I'm glad that I attended a school I can feel proud of. Until I actually participate in the German university system myself, I will refrain from any other judgements on the matter and simply leave the facts as they are.

But don't even get me started on how much America worships college sports teams. That's an entirely new rant waiting to happen.


  1. I think the culture is different in America because the process is different in America. Like you mentioned, in America many people leave home to live on campus for the 4 years they are there. Going to college is a bit like a coming of age thing, I think. Its about a group of people who all go through being away from home at the same time, and so it creates a sense of unity. I guess. I didn't live on campus, I worked a lot so I couldn't participate in school activities, and I in the end I didn't give a hoot about my graduating class. I easily chose to postpone my graduation for a year and a half so I could study in Japan.

    1. I think that's definitely a large part of it, but it doesn't explain everything (at least to me). I guess it might be one of those cultural differences that are hard to explain.

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