Make the Leap and Go On Exchange!

Alexandra K., Dual Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Business
Berlin School of Economics and Law, Germany (Semester 1, 2018)

Imagine thousands of people sitting by a river, beer in hand, basking in the sunlight or throwing a Frisbee while techno music plays in the background. This is the definition of a Berlin summer. Sadly, my exchange was for the fall semester, where snow and a Glühwein by a fire was more favourable. However, being kept indoors also meant more time to bond with the students who I shared my dormitory with. Students from all backgrounds and languages mingled daily, and there was certainly no shortage of partying. The little things are what makes an exchange so memorable, such as ice skating at the Christmas markets together or using the car seats from an abandoned van in our living room. Some of the people I lived with have made their way into my heart as life-long friends, who I have already visited in their home countries.I attended HWR for one semester with the goal of deepening my knowledge of international management in an international setting. The experiences and lessons I gained from the teachers who are sourced from all round the world were invaluable, and helped to set me apart from the curve. HWR, like most of Germany, is very old-fashioned and traditional in their approach to learning and bureaucracy. No lectures are recorded and you are expected to build a relationship with your teacher. This approach at first seems a bit intrusive or unnecessary, but my teachers were able to connect with me on a personal and professional level. This approach encourages students to develop their own opinion and solutions to issues presented, as opposed to simply memorising content.

Culture shock in Germany was inevitable, but learning the language is the best step towards fitting in and finding your place. Before my exchange, I studied German in Brisbane at the “DerDieDas” school, which was excellent to ensure I was not wasting time on the basics when in Berlin. After my 6 months of exchange, I am currently at a B2 level, and am undertaking an internship in Berlin now. Advice for your exchange I can offer is be prepared to feel lonely, homesick or just displaced. Take the time out of your week to call home, be ready for the shopkeepers to be rude to you, and don’t be afraid to go out alone. One of the highlights of my experience was simply going to a local German-owned café and spending hours preparing for my German exam the next day. This small decision lead to me meeting my now-boyfriend, a Kiwi who lives in Berlin! Just make the leap and go on exchange, but don’t stop there, make the leap and squeeze every last drop out of the experience.

What One Can Do Tomorrow, One Can Do Today

Harry B., Bachelor of Business / Bachelor of Laws (Honors)
Berlin School of Economics and Law, Germany (Semester 2, 2016)

The task of conveying my experience on exchange feels somewhat futile, for what made the experience unforgettable – the people met, language learnt, and culture lived – cannot, without losing something of its charm, be neatly distilled into a blog post. Can my friends, my parents, really understand just what it was that I underwent, why it was that I relished my time overseas; the experience and memories being so subjectively and personally my own. Perhaps this scepticism is shared by the exchange faculty, who advised in the writing of this post I focus on the university, facilities, costs, campus life and general tips – in short, just the most useful and easily digestible snippets of information addressed to the palate of the reader who is preparing, or contemplating, their own experience, not so much yours. So it is this I have attempted in the following few paragraphs.

The Berlin School of Economics and Law, where I studied, is in German classified a Hochschule – something of a university, but on a smaller scale, with smaller class and campus sizes. My lectures rarely had more than 30 people, my tutorials even less. This is vastly different to QUT and, I discovered, quite to my liking. For it was because of this the students became better friends, and the learning experience more intimate. Downsides do exist, but are not sufficient, surely, to hamper things: the library was to my mind under resourced, having neither enough places to study, nor computers to use. But I am guessing those reading this, if they’re on exchange, will not frequent the library all that often. My chief gripe, which is to the detriment of us internationals, is the absence of a well organised and supported club for exchange students. Although some effort was being made to remedy this towards the end of my stay, this was of no help to me, whose efforts to meet people would have been greatly assisted by an organisation, like QUT Exchange Buddies Club here, which organised bar nights and activities. Again, given the city in which you live, Berlin, is not short of entertainment, you may not find this gripe as deleterious as did I. But certainly one has a far better time gallivanting around with friends, than without, and it is through clubs run for the benefit of exchange students you meet such comrades.

I resided in private accommodation, which was quite expensive. Places in Berlin are becoming dearer and harder to find, so ensure you secure a place to live –using, say, AirBnb or or the fantastic WG-gesucht.com – well, well, in advance. Alternatively, one could through the university apply for a room in a student dorm, run by the organisation Studentenwerk. Though in general further out from the city centre, they are very affordable and populated with students. You will find, I am told, that the commute is not prohibitively long (especially biking to the train station) – at least not so long as to negate the other, sizable benefits of staying there.

Berlin, apart from the sometimes high cost of private accommodation, is affordable. We live in an expensive country, so I suppose wheresoever we go we will be pleasantly surprised, but everything – public transport, food and groceries, alcohol, entertainment, health insurance – is markedly less expensive than Brisbane.

As to the culture of the place, I have been on a previous exchange to Germany, that time to Mannheim, and must say, the feel of Berlin is itself unique; it has no counterpart, I do not think, across country or even Europe. Frankly, I can imagine few places where a student exchange would be more fitting. There is plenty to do and see – which you probably did not require my assurance of. I recommend learning the language: there is an intensive class offered in the month preceding the commencement of classes. It helps to know a few words. Culture shock, to be honest, is not the problem it may have been in other Germany cities and towns. Berlin is extremely cosmopolitan, an unbelievable melting pot, and it is not uncommon to hear many different languages spoken in cafes and trains. To be sure, there are many locals earnestly going about their business, whose sensibilities you ought not to disregard. But on the whole, people tend to coexist in acceptance of and harmony with everyone else.

Tips:

  • Should you have the money, get German health insurance (80 Euro per month) – this will save you some hassle.
  • Ration your money, spent wisely and be resourceful.
  • Without being reckless, take risks: you are, for a short period, incognito.
  • Meet people and make friends as quickly as possible, organise outings.
  • Improve your cooking, stay healthy, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and take vitamin pills.
  • Above all: do not waste what little time you have. You will be on your long haul hour flight back to banal Brisbane before you know it, so hit the ground running, be prepared and make no excuses for yourself. What one can do tomorrow, one can do today.