Sarah Virkler majored in German as an undergraduate at Xavier University and spent a year during her studies as an exchange student at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, where she learned first-hand about the differences between German and American higher education.
My interest in all things Germany started in high school. As a freshman, I wasn’t sure what language I wanted to take (Spanish, French, German and Latin were all offered when I attended). Interested in achieving the highest GPA possible, I asked my brother if German was easy, he said yes, so my decision was made—simple as that.
Over the next four years I started really enjoying learning the language and all about German culture and during my senior year participated in an exchange program. I hosted another high school student for a few weeks then visited her after graduating. This was my first time outside of the US and was truly an eye opening experience. I reveled in the opportunity to get to know the country, language and the people better. I made lasting relationships with Germans in this exchange group that last to this day.
I entered the summer between high school graduation and university knowing that I wanted to keep German an active part of my studies. Although I was a good student in German, I quickly realized how much my language skills could be improved upon. As such I quickly started planning my studies so I could make studying in Germany for a year possible.
My first two years at my American university were so much fun. My school was close to the center of a city, had fantastic faculty, the facilities were immaculate (especially the grounds) and student life and involvement was a huge part of my first two years. I was heavily involved in various clubs and activities, including Student Senate, volunteer work, became a Resident Assistant, etc. I felt as though I was actively participating in my university and community. As for academics, these were challenging and rewarding. Although I studied German and International Studies, I took courses in different areas including Theology, Sciences, Philosophy, etc.
With two years under my belt, I was ready to study in Germany. My school already had a direct exchange so all credits, acceptance and finances were taken care of and agreed upon. My school in Germany also had an excellent International Students department that provided thorough information on what was needed, including visas and even a mentor program, where a German student would mentor their international students on just about anything. On top of that, they would regularly plan events and trips to get all the international students together.
Arriving in Germany after studying 2 years at university, I thought my German was pretty good. I was wrong. I really had a long way to go, despite my years in high school and university studying the language. What I eventually came to find was that was my problem all along, I was studying the language, not living it. After a few months of being immersed I made a lot of progress and already achieved my goal: fluency.
My year in Germany was a lot of fun as well as a life changing and eye opening experience for me. I travelled all over Europe, befriended Germans and other nationalities alike and got to experience, first-hand, another culture. A great thing that was impressed upon me was the differences between the American higher education system and that of Germany. One occurrence that I remember clear as day was when the German students were protesting against tuition fees of 500€ per semester (back in 2008 and this was one of the more expensive universities in Germany at the time, a German friend later explained to me). At first I laughed, thinking, “are you kidding me? 1000€ per year! I’d love to pay that!” Then, I was angry, in disbelief that they would complain about paying such low annual tuition costs. The more I thought about it though, the less angry I became and started to understand their protests. Universities were once free, now they have changed to 1000€ a year, on top of the high taxes they (or their parents) pay.
After a year or learning and fun, I came back to the US ready to finish my degree. It was during this year that I started to reflect my experiences both in the US and German university systems. I realized that in the US you pay an exorbitant amount for your education. Yes, you get pristine facilities with attentive professors and a good education but you also pay for that! When a friend from Germany visited me, they came on campus and were astounded by the buildings and grounds. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I was paying for this and that my university was run more like a business than it was a national priority. I started to compare my experience in the US to Germany and started to realize the German system offered a lot of value for its students. Germany offers high quality education that is efficient, stimulating and prepares it’s students for the real world. Students are expected to know their material and study at their own pace—in my university and program, there was no homework or exams to measure progress throughout the semester, you were evaluated at the end of the semester either by taking a written exam or through a presentation to the professor or class. This may sound daunting at first, as it varies immensely from the US system, but you are also given a lot more freedom to learn and enjoy your university experience. Professors are also not there holding your hand—if you want to show up to class, you can, but they won’t take attendance nor will they make sure you hand in any exams or papers you may have at the end of the course. It is up to you to learn as much or as little as you want to in order to pass your class or even learn something from it. While there are still campus activities and clubs, these are not as pronounced as it is in the US and nor is there a so-called “campus life” with on campus living, etc. Now, while the German system may have its perks, one thing that I found missing was related to creativity. When studying a certain program, you stick to courses only directly related to the program, without any “distractions” from your main studies. For those students uncertain of what they want to study, this can be a challenge and lead to an extra year of study if you choose to switch programs.
Although I don’t regret my decision to study both in the US or Germany, had I of known what I know now, I would have opted to go directly to Germany to obtain my degree. I would have spent 6 months to a year perfecting the language then entered university. I thoroughly enjoyed the academically challenging university atmosphere that offered a large amount of independence at a low cost. Had I of gone this route, I could have either stayed in Germany and looked for work after graduating or returned to the US, where they would have not only recognized my degree the same as one in the US, but also would have found it impressive that I obtained my degree abroad.