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International by nature

Studying abroad at TU Kaiserslautern offers a multicultural experience in Germany.

Von Unispectrum live • Laura Petersen

Nearly 3,000 international students from some 124 countries come to Technische Universität Kaiserslautern, more than half of whom are pursuing masters and Ph.D. degrees. 

They come for the high-quality education and research opportunities, as well as the university’s strong ties with industry. But along with the TUK degree, an invigorating, multicultural, supportive experience awaits. 

New students are struck by the truly international environment both on campus and in the adjacent city of Kaiserslautern. 

“I get to learn about different cultures that I never imagined I would have known about,” said Pedro Aguilar, an engineer from Columbia who is earning a masters degree in automation and control. 

Location, location, location

The TUK campus is extremely well-positioned to suit a variety of interests. A 15 minute walk or a short bus ride and you’re in downtown Kaiserslautern, a small city with a village atmosphere.

The campus is flanked by the Palatinate forest, part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve and one of Europe’s largest forests, which offers countless hiking and biking trails.

“I feel a lot more healthy here,” said Allyssa Hinkle, a biology masters student from the US. She rides her bike to campus, a change from driving most places in Colorado.

For those who like to travel, the Kaiserslautern train station is a convenient hub. Students can easily head to Paris for a weekend on the high-speed train that takes less than 2.5 hours, be in Munich for Oktoberfest in four hours, or connect to Frankfurt International Airport in 1.5 hours. 

Affordable living 

Kaiserslautern is also very affordable. While international students do not have to pay tuition, they do need to budget about 10,000 EUR per year for basic living expenses, including rent, food and their social fees, which among other perks, provides unlimited access to the local transit system.

While Hinkle had lived in Germany growing up and was eager to return, that affordability was also a key reason for choosing TUK.

“It is very expensive to get a masters degree back home,” she said.

TUK students also have a unique opportunity to work part-time on campus if they want to, for example, at the library, in a lab doing research, or in administrative offices.

German language

While Kaiserslautern attracts residents from all over, and many speak English, it is still first and foremost German. Knowing some German will go a long way in navigating shops, transit and making friends with locals. 

The TUK Department of International Affairs (ISGS) organizes an intensive language and culture course for new students. In addition to learning the language, participants go on excursions around Germany. 

Assel Nurbekova, a biology masters student from Kazakhstan, really enjoyed the course, finding it easier to pick up the language while using it everyday. 

“The German teachers were really great, the whole teaching process was amazing,” Nurbekova said. 

The class, which brings together new students from all over the world, is also perfect for making friends.

“Everyone is very open and willing to laugh and joke about things,” Hinkle said.

Easing the transition

The Department of International Affairs (ISGS) is the core organization and support for TUK’s international community. From initial inquiry and application, throughout the entire program and graduation, the same dedicated team is there for the international students. 

They are especially attentive to logistics, helping students arrange apartments, navigate the visa process, health insurance and other paperwork. Aguilar said his friend at another German university was expected to figure out most of those things on his own.

“ISGS is very helpful,” he said. "I really appreciate it, especially when they don’t have to do it.”

In addition to answering individual questions, the department offers many programs and seminars, such as how to get invited for job interview in Germany, professional job skills workshops, and networking opportunities with German-based companies.

When the number of international students was much smaller, the ISGS department would even have everyone come together to cook meals to make campus feel more like home. 

“Now with 3,000 international students, we can’t all cook together anymore, but we still have the spirit of family,” says Dr.-Ing. Parya Memar, ISGS Director.

This spirit is especially apparent during the international student graduation ceremony, which brings together professors, incoming and current students, alumni and the graduates. The personal and cultural performances by members of the the TUK community make the day especially memorable. 

Be independent, ask questions

When asked what the key to success for studying abroad at TUK, Memar said: “The very important thing about the German academic system is you have to be very independent.”

Be independent, but don’t be afraid to ask questions, she said. Even though ISGS endeavors to provide as much information as possible - both through their handbook and smartphone app - make sure to take the initiative to seek answers or advice.

“It’s ok to ask a lot of questions when starting a new job or task,” she said. "Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t get it.”

TUK is mid-size campus, with about 15,000 students total. Students are sure to know their professors, who often recruit them for their research projects. Quality relationships with professors is a cornerstone of the TUK experience. 

“This size, you really cannot get lost,” said Kim Yvonne Köhler, who runs ISGS recruiting and communication of social and advisory services. “The support and supervision is there if you need it.”

It’s going to be different

Of course, studying abroad is always full of unexpected surprises — the systems and norms are not the same as one’s home country. Expecting that it is going to be different can help relieve some anxiety, Köhler said. 

For example, some are surprised to learn that there is only one test at the end of a course, and that students must register to take the exam. Also, keep in mind that the exam format might vary, such as an oral presentation. 

Other insights: Germans are on time, so don’t show up 30 minutes late. And understand that their feedback style is very direct and honest; perhaps so direct that other cultures might consider it harsh or rude. Try not to take it personally. 

Lastly, Germans are typically polite, but reserved. It takes a bit of effort to break the ice. A key way to do that is to learn the language. Making German friends can be challenging without knowing at least a few phrases. Köhler encourages students to join clubs or activities that interest them — that’s the best way to ensure a true multicultural experience in Germany.