I am unsure whether I should study abroad in Germany
May 24, 2020 5:02 PM   Subscribe

First, I'll start by explaining who I am. I live in Latin America, in particular Costa Rica. You can live pretty well here for the most part. However, it isn't enough for me and I want to leave. I feel stagnant and I feel that if I stay here I may never achieve my goals.

I'm applying to several countries, my two main choices are Canada and Germany.

The reasons why Germany appeals to me:

1. People are punctual, direct and well structured. I am mostly that way as well.
2. Engineering is a big thing in Germany, I am a soft engineer and I am fan of math. The programs offered by German universities are awesome.
3. I have always liked the German language. If I hadn't had some issues stopping me from learning before I would have started learning long ago.

There are some things that concern me however and they make me wonder whether it is a good idea for me to go there.

These are it:

1. I have the distinct impression that some Germans are fatalistic and overly negative. Things are the way they are and you can't escape them, is what I've heard from some Germans. I don't believe in this, if you put your mind to it, you can do it. That's what I think.

2. They tell me that if you're not German, they'll never think of you as German. In contrast to Canada and America, they are not as inclusive as what it means to be German. On the other hand I've also been told that if you fit in they will treat you fine, but it will be made clear to you that you're an outsider. I don't mind not being considered German, I am not German. However, hearing this makes me think that integration in Germany is not very easy.

Anyway, those things worry me, I'm reconsidering if I shouldn't just put all of my focus into Canada or if I should consider other Anglosphere countries like the UK and Australia. I want to apply outside of that, it is already familiar to me, but this is a decision that is bigger than just applying. Wherever I end up, I want to stay there.

I'm unsure of what to do. Can someone help me or give me some advice?

I don't know if there are Germans in here but I would more than welcome your opinions.
posted by Tarsonis10 to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am German but have not lived in Germany for 20+ years. Something to bear in mind is that Germany is made up of many different states, some are more conservative, some less, some are richer, some are poorer and the people are very different throughout.

From spending a year plus working on a project in a smaller town in Southern Germany recently my current impressions are that the smaller towns can still be very provincial in outlook and homogeneous in terms of population and that even people in their early twenties were often already extremely narrow minded and risk averse. The larger cities tend to attract a much more diverse crowd. I don’t know if this holds for university towns but if you’re considering programs in such a town do your due diligence and find out how many international students they have, connect with some and get their opinions about the place before committing to a program. If I wee to ever move back I would move to a larger city because I wouldn’t be comfortable in one of these small towns, even if my money would go further there.

You mention fatalistic or negative outlook. Well, a lot of Germans like to complain, normally about true first world problems, even quite young people can sound like bitter old* people. You’ll just have to find friends who aren’t like that. * not saying all old people are bitter or complain in general but the people I am thinking of would be like your great auntie who spends every family function telling anybody who will listen how hard done by she is.

Probably not what you meant but Germany is a very bureaucratic country. There are rules for a lot of things and often only one accepted way of doing something. And no, not going to change that just because. If that kind of thing frustrates the hell out of you be prepared to be frustrated.

You don’t mention formality/warmth - German as language can be very formal, people like to be known by all their titles, being reserved and keeping your distance is not unusual unless the situation is clearly informal, close friends. So I’d have thought that would be a cultural difference to Costa Rica but I don’t know enough about your culture to do more than mention it as potential difference here.

German - unless the program is clearly described as English language things will be in German. And you don’t just have to be able to understand lectures, read in German but also write at a high, technical level. In German technical writing, a single sentence can easily span half or two thirds of a paragraph. Technical writing in German is often needlessly complicated. If there is a simple way to say it that won’t be the way they present it. Writing long, complicated sentences that are hard to understand is something a lot of people seem to pride themselves on. And if you plan to work in Germany after graduation you should absolutely be prepared to work in German. Even in large multinationals they may only speak English if the meeting/correspondence includes overseas contacts. Most will have pretty good English but if you’re there as a local hire you may well be expected to operate in German and at a high level. So if you do not currently speak German, you should absolutely make every effort to learn ASAP because getting to that level of competence takes years. Not being able to operate at that level will hold you back.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:04 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]

As a Canadian, I would say don’t underestimate the fact that Germany is in Europe. You could hop a train in Germany and in a relatively short time visit a number of different countries and cultures, even just for a weekend. In Canada, you could drive for days in almost any direction and still be in Canada, or go south to the US which is not all that different culturally.
posted by rodlymight at 6:38 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]

I'd look in to universities in Berlin. There's a vibrant culture there with lots of ex-pats so integrating is much easier than in, say, Hamburg or some place like that. All of my US friends who studied there loved it, and most of them moved there permanently.
posted by ananci at 9:23 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]

I'm Australian, but have spent some time living and/or studying in Germany. All up, I'd estimate around 2 years? Just not all at once. I spent time in Berlin and some time in a couple of small-ish cities in the south-west.

My experiences there have been very mixed. I've had some really great experiences there, but also some bad experiences where I really felt like giving up. And I guess I did give up, because I have since moved my life onto a very different path.

My impression is that there is widespread xenophobia in Germany. I'll admit that Australia has a problem with racism too, but this felt more pervasive even where you would expect that people would be more open minded (eg. in cities and when spending time with young people). I would say that being white and from an English-speaking country, the xenophobia I experienced was mild. But I can imagine that people of colour and people from some non-English speaking countries might have an even more difficult time.

My German was relatively fluent, but I still felt like it would never be good enough because I had an obviously foreign accent. One of my housemates bullied me about this for months.

That said, German universities can be fantastic. Berlin is quite a bit more welcoming than other places and is a great place to live for at least a short time in one's life. You might go and have a completely amazing time.

Maybe you could look into the German Academic Exchange Service and what kind of programs might be available for you to visit for some period of time. They should have various options for different lengths of time, areas of study, types of study. In addition to covering things like living costs and possibly travel to Germany, they often cover language courses and might offer other support while you are there. If you can get some kind of scholarship from them, it would be an amazing opportunity and I would say accept it without a second thought.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 1:16 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

I have not lived in Germany but my partner has - as part of a year abroad in university, and then working for 2 years, so I'm including her advice here too. I've visited Germany a number of times and have a lot of German colleagues who are based in Germany and abroad (and who went to university there).

Overall, I think here I would be cautious about basing your choice on what you think a group of people will be like. Depending on where you live and what you do you might be surrounded by a very mixed group of international students. 'Germans' (and other people) are not homogenous! Agree with the above comments that you might prefer to live in a bigger city, but I'd avoid making your choice based on 'national character'. Who you surround yourself will reflect on your actions and interests - which you can control to some extent. Berlin is a great city, with a diverse population and lots of opportunities.

Also agree that by living in Germany you are able to easily spend time in lots of nearby countries - a big bonus while you are exploring what you do and don't like. And transport is great, so you can explore smaller towns and cities and get a feel for them too.

If you like the look of the German courses best, then focus your efforts there - moving abroad anywhere has logistical challenges, but please don't hesitate because of the idea of a national psyche!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:36 AM on May 25 [4 favorites]

From my own experience I advise you to strongly consider Berlin. My daughter just graduated there on an American Liberal Arts College. One of the reasons she went there was the international population of the school and of the city. She also took some courses at the Freie Universität and those were exclusively in German. What makes the Freie (and some other universities) extra special: NO TUITION FEES It was easy for her to find a place to live and very affordable compared to our own city (Amsterdam). During my visits to Berlin, it always struck me how international Berlin is. Walk a mile through the center and you will hear conversations in many different languages. And like ananci said: she's staying there.
The difference with other cities is huge. I did some teaching at an international business school in Hamburg, to find out that only a handful of students was actually speaking English. I went to a conference at said school and the international speakers had to be translated. I did some research in Regensburg, with a fantastic university of course, but it was the same here. I had contact with international colleagues I met before, but some academics and librarians were not able to communicate in English.
I met an Australian chemistry student in Regensburg who had some basic knowledge of the German language before he came and he took a six month course before starting his studies. He's doing fine now, but just don't underestimate the importance of mastering the language.
In other words: Berlin yes, other cities: only if you have a very good reason. kinddieserzeit's has a point when it comes to xenophobia.
Very short titbits about Berlin: public transport & restaurants: fantastic. Sending packages through the regular mail always ends in drama and apart from the fantastic summers, if you are from Costa Rica you are not prepared for the German cold. Start knitting your woolen mittens now. Und viel Spaß!
posted by ouke at 2:54 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]

Where do you intend to work and live once you graduate? This should be the most important factor, imo. Because if it’s Canada, hiring managers *strongly* favour Canadian qualifications (or American ones, at a push) over ones from really anywhere else, including the broader Anglosphere. Establishing equivalency and obtaining Canadian experience are no mean feat - especially if you’re interested in engineering that’s not software engineering (any other kind involves regulatory hurdles).

(Re engineering fields you could conceivably work in, oil and gas are struggling here, and I don’t think metallurgy is a thing anymore, if it was. Not an expert by any means, please research this! Software/tech fields are doing ok - not sure how foreign training affects hiring practices - but lots of our tech people prefer working in the US because the pay is apparently wildly better there, so Canadian grads often leave. But there is work.)

Canada, outside of our few cities, can be racist, as well.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:50 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]

My experience studying in Germany thus far has been very positive (I also have an engineering background and am in an engineering graduate program at the moment). Regarding your specific questions/points of concern:

1. I have the distinct impression that some Germans are fatalistic and overly negative:
- Germans are highly diverse in their viewpoints. I find that older Germans that I meet are somewhat less social (to international students for example) and can come across as negative. I personally find that younger people have the typical range of viewpoints and attitudes ranging from all sorts of pessimism and optimism. In general, many Germans seem more practical in their way of thinking (which some may perceive as negative), but it doesn't come across as particularly fatalistic to me. In general, I don't think you need to be concerned about this as a "scary" feature of German society. In general, many people are quite kind and helpful. For example, when I arrived in Germany, I had more luggage than I should have probably been carrying, and at numerous points along my train and bus travel within Germany, people would grab a bag and help me carry things without me asking for any help.

2. They tell me that if you're not German, they'll never think of you as German:
- This I would somewhat agree with; most of the Germans I have met do make a distinction between people who grew up in Germany and people who immigrated. This does not mean that they will not be friends with you, or that you will have a hard time. If you plan on living the rest of your life in Germany, this may be somewhat of a concern. However, if you are willing to be flexible, I think Germany is a great place to go and study (particularly Engineering), and you can then decide how you feel about the culture and make decisions about where to live next. Generally, an engineering degree from Germany will be looked upon favorably in other countries as well.

Regarding the xenophobia mentioned - I don't doubt this exists (and in some areas of Germany I have heard it is scarily common), but in many University towns, it seems people are very open-minded and actually extremely interested in meeting people from other countries. As a white person that could possibly be mistaken as German though, it's not fair for me to say that based on my personal experiences you won't face any xenophobia, but in talking with other international students in my university town (who may visually stand out as more "international"), they have reported feeling included and not having much difficulty making German friends. As far as language barrier goes, my German is not great, and generally as long as I am making an effort, the people I interact with are friendly.
posted by unid41 at 7:22 AM on May 25

I am German. (As in, born and raised in Germany.) Some of us are nationalistic, pessimistic, rule-enforcing jerks. Others are not. Some people are racist, whether casually or violently - the ultra right have gained votes over the past few years. They mostly hate muslims, though. (Not that that's okay!) Heck, even my casually racist old parents have foreign friends.

To some Germans, even other Germans from different areas are "foreign". Then again, in Berlin I hear more languages that are not German than German. My family complains they get talked to in English when trying to order food. Young people at universities will most likely welcome you just as much as students anywhere else. Some of them are probably not German themselves. If you are willing to offer yourself as a language exchange partner, you will make friends easily, I think. We also love showing off our English, so unless you go somewhere rural, you should be fine with basic German for shopping only. (Do research on doctors etc. before you need them though!)

As someone who has studied and lived abroad, I advise you to keep an open mind about the possibility of staying, though. Tell yourself you are checking out the country, and be okay with the option of leaving if you don't like it. I know Germans who don't want to live there (I am currently abroad, but not because I hate Germany), so there is no shame in saying it's not for you.

Also, students in Germany are not punctual at all, and if you think our trains are, you're in for a VERY rude awakening.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 3:32 AM on May 26

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