A mixed welcome for student refugees

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung featured an article on the 10th of October about refugees possibly flooding the country’s higher education system. The article made the point that the Syrian education system was strong before the civil war broke out -- 60 percent of young people there obtained a high-school diploma or Abitur. That said, they are arriving to Germany by the thousands, and their primary foreign language is English. The article questions a general and well-advertised sentiment among higher education institutions that refugees, as part of a larger globalization push at universities, are welcome. If they are, what specific accommodations and integration programs are available to give them a chance at success? The article ends with this question: “Welcome, but by whom?”

As a recently graduated master’s student in the German university system, I have observed a few potential challenges for refugees within the higher-education culture here. First, the professors themselves as the most direct contact that students have with the universities are not traditionally very helpful. The thinking is that if you are capable of doing university work, you are capable of solving your own problems. To be rebuffed by professors as a matter of course has proven an effective trial by fire for native German students finding their way into adulthood. The drawback for exchange students and/or immigrants is that asking questions and seeking assistance are our keys to survival. The learning curve is steep.

Personally, I had a strong support system at home while I studied and was blessed with a large number of professors who were, in fact, familiar with the struggles of ex-pats and quite sympathetic. My studies were also in English. My experience, however, is not typical, and the program in which I was enrolled charged extra fees for its internationally friendly leanings. Still, more than once, I felt judged not by who I was as an individual or how I performed in the class -- the hallmarks of celebrating diversity -- but what I represented as a citizen of another country (namely, the United States). These instances were rare, but they did happen. How much harder would it be if I were a refugee and struggling with the language in German-only classes?


From the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: Prospective student-refugees taking a German course in Vechta, Germany.

The author of the FAZ article points out that existing exchange-student programs aimed at recruiting foreigners into their programs are less about promoting diversity so much as drawing the best and brightest from around the world to the German economy. Recruiting programs provide German language courses and extra assistance to help assure success. Auf Forschungsebene zielt die globale Expansion ohnehin weniger auf Diversität als auf die Rekrutierung der weltweit Besten ins eigene Modell. While this is a laudable effort, it does not bode well for the average person arriving to the country and looking for a way to enter the German economy through education. In particular, university-level language skills in German can take years to develop, and many of the young refugees who might be interested in studying don't exactly have a place to go to do the learning part. Libraries and other study facilities are not designed to hold every student on campus, and refugees across Germany are still living in tents.

Germany wants to avoid the creation of an entire lost generation of young Syrians denied an education and, therefore, chances for success in a society where CEOs regularly carry doctor titles and even salesmen require professional certification. The discussion on how to integrate refugees and support their success is a compelling one, and the stakes are high. From my experience, it promises some fundamental changes in the German education system and will require immense patience and sacrifice on the part of individuals who never saw this coming.

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