In Britain, it’s unheard of to start your first two weeks at university without shortening your life expectancy, gaining 15 pounds and doing things you’ll almost certainly later regret in the name of an amateur sports team. Beyond conflicting attitudes to small talk and nudity, one of the more significant cultural differences I have noticed between Germans and Brits is the mentality of young ‘twenty somethings’. It never occurred to me before that the ‘path’ I have almost unconsciously followed (and continue to follow) from school to employment is just a British cultural norm. Be it Freshers Week, student housing or graduate schemes, the ‘life stages’ that British students move through do not map on to their German counterparts.
Take a gap year or three
Whilst working at my school, I have been asked countless times how I can be both twenty and in my third year of university. They assume that I am really a 25 year old dwarf who is embarrassed about her height and young complexion. Their reaction is unsurprising considering that the average German student in their third year of university is about 23. This is unlikely to be because all British students happen to be innately more intelligent than Germans of the same age, but rather because German students are not bound by ‘year groups’ in the same way as Brits.
In Britain, there seems to be some weird stigma attached to straying too far from peers of your age. In school, age boundaries were crossed for only two reasons; ‘year above’ friends were to make you seem cool and ‘year below’ friends were there for you to unnecessarily patronise. Beyond these two recognised frameworks, friends, enemies and soul mates were limited to your year group, whilst the rest of the world was comfortably ignored. The rules relaxed ever so slightly at university, permitting a rogue gap year friend into your stratosphere but, on the whole, the parameters remained fixed.
Germans, by contrast, have no concept of this ‘year group’ phenomenon. This is likely to because students move between years much more freely; from ‘sitzen bleiben’ (repeating a year) to casually taking a year abroad to an English speaking country (a bizarre number of my students have spent a year in Nova Scotia, Canada), time out from school is much more common than in England. This culture is further encouraged by the fact that an incomparably large amount of German students take a gap year after finishing school, with many taking part in the state organised program involving social work and volunteering. By the time they start university, ‘first years’ are an eclectic mix of ages so that our unfounded fear of straying too far from the ‘path’ of our age group is immediately dissolved.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked by my students if I want to be a teacher when I grow up (in a year’s time.) As the months went by, my tactful lie “I’m considering it as an option” has slowly descended in to an aggressive “over my dead body”, much to the other teachers’ annoyance. The reason they repeatedly ask me this is because, in Germany, it is unheard of to study a non-vocational subject unless you are interested in a career in either teaching or academia. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism. Want to be a lawyer? Study law. Want to work in marketing? Study marketing. “Why is then learning German to your taste?”, I hear their irritating voices probe.
It’s surprisingly difficult to explain that, in England, your degree doesn’t translate (pardon the pun) in to what career you’d like to pursue or even what you’re most interested in, but rather to something vaguely similar to your A-levels that an employer might not hate. As all Germans seem to strive for efficiency in body and soul, higher education has an entirely practical function. It does, however, seem pretty ironic that whilst they carefully make the most of their free university education, we treat ourselves to a decadent £30,000 degree of moderate personal interest that we fell into through fear of UCAS.
What would the first few weeks of university be without pretending to have the time of your life with strangers you hate whilst privately crying over the phone to your friends from home? Yet German universities seem to be devoid of the ‘Freshers culture’ that we know and ‘love’. Where do they get to play embarrassing drinking games with strangers they’ll hopefully never have to see again? Nowhere. When do they get to engage in conversation about how much they love alcohol because they exhausted their three reliable conversation starters? Never. How do they mentally note to avoid the wierdo down the corridor who asked for a breakdown of their A-level results? They don’t need to.
This is because the German approach to starting university is entirely different from ours. Firstly, the majority of students end up going to the university in their home town so that they can save money by living at home. Of course there are exceptions to this, with some students seeking out the towns/cities with universities that are better for their course, but, on the whole, staying at home is the trend for undergraduate life. In fact, even when they do venture to another place, they would be most likely to live in a flat with a friend from their home-town, rather than making new friends.
This inevitably has drastic consequences for their social life at university. Whereas the majority of British students would form a new circle of friends, this tradition of using university as an opportunity to meet new people doesn’t seem to exist in Germany. This is not to say that Germans are anti-social robots who wait for their seminars to begin in silence, but without the structures in place (i.e Freshers week events and halls of residence) to make new friends, a different culture inevitably emerges. For most Germans, the friends they make whilst at school are the ones that they remain close with in adult life.
Perhaps the biggest difference between British and German ‘twenty somethings’ is the amount of time it’s socially acceptable to remain a student. In Britain, unless you want to burden your great-grandchildren with debt, you would only really do a Masters if you have funding, want to pursue a career in academia or are rich. Germans, on the other hand, can do a Masters either for free or for a few hundred euros. This means that most jobs that we would consider to be ‘graduate level’ require postgraduate qualifications. As a result, life is delayed by a decade. Whilst my 21 year old friends from home panic about not having found a graduate job yet, every single person under 30 I’ve met in Berlin has been either a part of full-time student. Most would have a ‘Nebenjob’ (in café, shop, etc) on the side, but their ‘career path’ seems to be navigated at a much later time and at a significantly slower pace.
I’m not really sure which mind-set I prefer. If I was a German of the same age, I would probably be friendlessly plodding through my first year of university, studying something vaguely useful, despite not having to worry about real life for another five years. As it stands, however, I (socialite of North London, BNOC of Uni and Berghain A-lister) am forced to stare real life in the face by British cultural norms, consoled only by a Venn diagram of extensive social circles. Yet with the scars of Freshers week and living away from home under my belt, maybe I am better equipped to deal with it.