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The GW Hatchet


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The GW Hatchet

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GW Expat: Germany’s academic autonomy

BERLIN, Germany

Once the pride and joy of Germany, the universities here are now facing a massive shortage of funds, overcrowded classrooms and an antiquated system leaving them unable to compete in a globalizing world -and me longing for GW.

“Germany’s universities are completely broke,” one of my advisers at the Humboldt University admitted when I first arrived. He explained that the German universities just cannot compete with their American counterparts. As I near the end of my first semester here (the German semester ends in February), I now understand what he meant.

My entire academic experience here has been overshadowed by a university infrastructure that does not seem to have changed much since the days when Einstein studied here. Registration is still done completely by hand. Bills must be paid in person at the cashier’s office. Libraries close at 6 p.m. And forget about our fancy GWeb system. There simply is not enough money for that.

This country may have brought the world aspirin, rocket science, quantum physics and the diesel engine – but the glory days of German science are long gone.

So what does all this mean for daily student life here?

“The first weekend of the semester here I schlepped through Checkpoint Charlie to the other side of the city in order to go the library on Sunday. And it was closed,” Georgetown student Andrew Andrzejewski, lamented.

“The university library system has a pretty comprehensive database, but actually finding the books requires going to 10 different libraries scattered throughout the city. And if the books are actually in the library, half of them can’t even be checked out,” he said.

But there is a positive side, Andrzejewski said, “It’s not all bad. If you’re actually able to get everything done, you go to sleep happy.”

While they may be broke, the German universities do have their benefits.

“Students in Germany are more independent,” said Johann Banzhaf, a medical student in Berlin who spent a year studying in the United States. “American students are maybe a bit sheltered from the real world.”

He is right. American universities try to be both academic institutions as well as substitute parents. Even with our urban location, many GW students live in a bubble. It was great having a cleaning service freshmen year, but would it really have been that hard for me to vacuum my own room?

As a hardheaded Texan, I love the freedom to do as I please here. No community facilitators. No University Police Department officers patrolling the residence halls. No advising holds that have to be lifted in order to register for class. And best of all, no general course requirements. The thought of returning to GW to fulfill that one last math requirement makes me weep.

Having suffered through my freshmen biology requirement – only to forget everything 10 minutes after the final – I agree that the Germans are smart to allow students to take responsibility for planning their own academic program. I doubt that I will spend much time writing about mitosis and meiosis during my career as a journalist.

“I think that we believe in the human being that is able to reflect and act responsibly and the American system doesn’t promote that kind of responsible student,” said Benedikt Mertens, a law student at the University of Münster who has visited GW.

But where is the line between encouraging self-sufficiency and having a crummy infrastructure that hinders the academic experience?

It recently took me more than an hour to copy just 10 pages in the library because the aging Gutenberg-era copy machines barely work. And when I have to sit on the floor for a two-hour lecture because there are not enough seats in the classroom, I do not feel like it makes me any more responsible. It just raises my blood pressure and my disenchantment with the whole learning experience.

I gleefully left GW to spend my junior year in Germany, but I have come to appreciate all that GW and the other upper crust American universities have to offer.

Gelman may not be pretty, but it sure is convenient and user friendly. I am still trying to figure out how to check out books from the libraries here. Each time I go, I have to fill out a new registration form, and I am just about ready to give up.

Sure, we may pay out the teeth to go to GW. But from our shiny new buildings, to our small discussion-based classes, to our accessible library – we do have excellent resources.

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