Palo Alto/CA: German Students at Stanford University | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.12.2001
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Palo Alto/CA: German Students at Stanford University

Many German students flock to the US because they feel studying at American universities and colleges will open up new career roads for them.

Gerald Engel, Stanford student says companies invite him out to fancy dinners

Gerald Engel, Stanford student says companies invite him out to fancy dinners

Stanford University, some 30 miles south of San Francisco, is a world-renowned private university. The atmosphere at Stanford is very international and multi-cultural: About one-third of all upper semester students come from abroad.

The school is attractive for them because of its high academic standards, but also because it's located in the heart of Silicon Valley - the center of the American high-tech and internet industries.

"Stanford is a great mix of languages and nationalities," says Markus Gärtner, a 24-year-old student of electrical engineering from Nürnberg in southern Germany. Around 200 of the 15 000 Stanford students come from Germany. There's even a German students' club, which organizes parties and discussions with German guests.

At first sight, the Stanford campus looks almost like a big park or country club with flower-beds, fountains, and exotic trees. The campus is green and spacious.

The most prominent buildings on campus are in the California Mission style -- built of local beige sandstone with red-tiled roofs. There are excellent athletic facilities on campus, including a swimming pool, a golf course and tennis courts.

Markus Gärtner says that even though the campus seems very laid-back and pleasant, studying at Stanford is actually a lot of hard work. But he says it isn't very different from studying in Germany. Lectures and seminars are pretty similar to those back home, he explains.

The only shock was the amount of homework: "There's really a lot of homework here. You spend hours every day and every night just to get the required class work done."

American professors look after their students' academic careers better than their German counterparts. In the US, students have a given time frame in which to complete their studies. In Germany, however, no one tells them when they should graduate: It's largely up to them to decide when they feel fit to tackle their final exams - be it after four years or after fourteen.

The result is that in the US, students usually graduate quicker than those in Germany. That's one thing that makes studying at American universities so attractive for many German students.

Another advantage of American colleges and universities are the excellent academic conditions many of them provide for their students - especially Ivy League schools and expensive private institutions.

But Markus Gärtner says that there are also drawbacks to studying in the US: "One thing I miss is the academic freedom students have in Germany. Here in the US, the professors basically stipulate what needs to be done. Everything is regulated."

Anna Sayn-Wittgenstein

Anna Sayn-Wittgenstein, Stanford student says there's more flexibility than in German universities

23-year-old Anna Sayn-Wittgenstein disagrees. She is also from Germany and studies History and Political Science. She says that in her course of study, she can be more flexible at Stanford than in Germany in deciding what classes to take.

But Anna thinks that the pressure on students to do well is extremely high at Stanford: "It's very competitive. Everyone is fighting on his own. It even goes so far that students will tell the professor if they've caught someone cheating on a test. In Germany, students would never do that. They would think of it as absolutely absurd."

Gerald Engel came to Stanford to write his doctoral thesis in mechanical engineering. He knew that Stanford would be a good starting point to establish contacts to the big-name computer and internet firms in Silicon Valley.

American companies often recruit their top personnel at elite schools like Stanford. "The irony is that it's not only the companies from Silicon Valley knocking on my door here," says Gerald Engel. "As a Stanford student, I'm also interesting for German companies. They know of the school's excellent reputation and they're interested in recruiting Stanford students.

"All sorts of German business consultants come here and invite us out to fancy dinners. Something like this never happened to me when I was still studying in Germany at the University of Stuttgart. It looks like you've got to take the detour of studying abroad for these German companies to begin noticing you."

Gerald thinks that Stanford owes much of its success to its excellent reputation. It's difficult for prospective students to get accepted there. And once you're in, you have to find ways to pay your tuition and room and board, which can amount to US $ 40 000 a year. You've either got to get a scholarship, take out a student loan, get a student job -- or you've got to have very rich parents.

Many German students at Stanford hope they'll be able to exploit the contacts they make here after they graduate. Some, like Markus Gärtner, hope they can get started in the internet business -- even though that sector of the economy has recently entered rough waters.

"Many students still dream of striking it rich," he explains. "You constantly bump into people here who tell you that they have just sold their company for something like 50 million dollars."

Such "rags-to-riches" cases may be spectacular, but they're rare. 29-year old Jochen Kleinknecht is a German post-doc business student. He knows from first-hand experience how hard it is these days to make your first million: "I've tried my luck with a number of start-ups, but I wasn't too successful. I'm still a student and I'm still not rich."

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