German University Builds Bridge to Eastern Europe

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FRANKFURT AN DER ODER, GERMANY -- On an autumn night, 25 people stood around a square in Slubice, a small Polish town across the Oder River from Germany, practicing their Polish. After rehearsing how to introduce themselves by name, they went around in the circle, the men practicing to say "Jestem Niemcem" while the women of the group learned "Jestem Niemka," which means "I am German."

The unusual language course was organized by a student club associated with the Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder, a border town in the former East Germany. Many of the participants -- who would then go to a British pub to learn to order drinks in Polish -- study at the university, which has one of the highest rates of foreign students in Germany.

The Viadrina, as it is known, was founded in 1991, just a year after German reunification and long before Poland became part of the European Union.

"It was founded with a clear mission to build a bridge between East and West," said Annette Bauer, a university spokeswoman.

The stated goal is to attract a third of the student body from abroad. Because of German laws against admission quotas, the actual number of foreigners studying at the university, an hour east of Berlin by train, is about 23 percent, but slowly growing, Ms. Bauer said.

Although Germany has a reputation for sending many students overseas, it also hosts the third-largest number of foreign students in Europe, after Britain and France.

German universities, which have good reputations and low or no tuition fees, have been attracting more students from Eastern Europe, especially since the region opened up politically.

The drawback of often having to learn a complicated language like German is outweighed by easier access and greater opportunities once in the system.

Annemarie Mercik is studying for a bachelor's degree in German and Polish law, a program in which knowledge of both languages is mandatory. Though she grew up in Hamburg, her family comes from Poland, which is how she came to speak the language. Graduating with a degree from the prestigious German university will give her good employment chances on both sides of the border, she said.

"The Viadrina is very well known in Poland," she said.

Because fewer German students speak university-level Polish than Polish students speak German, most students in her program are either from Poland or have a Polish background.

"The Viadrina concept focuses on multilingualism," said Petra Weber, head of the Department of International Affairs at the university.

Though many of the university's programs are offered in German, and some in English, many require the students to function in more than one language, including Polish, Russian and French. The university Web site can be read in German, English and Polish.

"I think there are relatively few people on campus who only speak German," Ms. Weber said.

Of the quarter million foreign students at German universities in 2010, roughly 10,300 came from Poland. According to Unesco figures, more than a third of all Polish university students studying abroad went to Germany.

An additional 13,100 students came from Russia, 8,800 from Ukraine and nearly 8,000 from Bulgaria, according to figures from the German Academic Exchange Service.

At Viadrina, 720 of the 6,700 students come from Poland, while 520 come from other European countries. Of the 5,100 German students there, many are interested in eventually working or studying outside of Germany, Ms. Weber said.

Ulrike Geier, who is studying intercultural communications at the master's level at the Viadrina, was part of the Polish-language pub tour. Having studied Russian as an undergraduate, she found simple Polish phrases easy to pronounce. As part of her degree, which she started in October, she must take a year of university-level Polish courses.

"I don't mind having to learn Polish," she said. "At least here, I get to practice it right away."

While Ms. Geier did not choose the university solely for its connection with Eastern Europe, she did think that the institute would make a good springboard for a pan-European career.

"I thought going here was important because they are generally very well connected internationally," she said.

Ms. Geier said she had just applied to do a semester abroad in Bogotá.

Viadrina has one of Germany's highest rates of students spending part of their studies abroad: 54 percent go overseas for at least a semester. It has partnerships with many overseas universities, from the University of California, Berkeley, to St. Petersburg. Some of the student exchanges are financed by the Erasmus Program, while others rely on joint agreements.

Viadrina offers joint degrees with Sciences Po Strasbourg-Institut d'études politiques, Istanbul Bilgi University and Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznan, Poland, with which it shares classrooms in Slubice, just across the river that acts as the national border.

Nowhere is Viadrina's mission to build a bridge with the East better symbolized than in the Gräfin Dönhoff building, a large and light-filled space that overlooks the river separating Germany from Poland.

It has become a popular student hangout, particularly in the winter. Bulletin boards advertise housing on both sides of the border. The career center, which holds fairs in the atrium, helps students find work in both countries.

The building is named after Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, a German journalist and author who was born in 1909 in Prussia, in what is now a region of east Poland. Ms. Dönhoff, who is known in Germany for describing her life fleeing westward at the end of World War II, was a great advocate for German-Polish friendship.

Some students, including young Germans who do not speak much Polish, choose to live on the more affordable Polish side of the border. Since 2007, when Poland joined the Schengen Area, the European passport/visa-free zone, the border guard towers have been empty, and moving from one country to another is as easy as crossing a bridge.

Viadrina students say the main social divide at the university has less to do with nationality than with commuting. Thanks to a good train connection and a student card that allows free travel, many students commute from Berlin. Those who stay behind complain that the bars, libraries and nightclubs are not lively enough once the commuters leave for the day.

"It somehow forms two separate groups," said Ms. Mercik, the law student, who belongs to the group that lives close to campus.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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