Welcome - Models of Volunteer Commitment

A group of people are standing in two lines, facing each other. they are in a middle of an interaction and laughing

By supporting student projects, the Welcome programme aims to quickly prepare academically qualified refugees for university admission and help them integrate into academic life at university and the cities where they live. The following report demonstrates that its takes many helping hands to ensure successful integration.

Marcus Willand, student at the University of Stuttgart, decided to establish a project for refugees during his visit to India. “I was there while thousands of refugees were trying to gain asylum in Germany in summer 2015 – and I was watching it all from a distance,” recalls Willand, a research assistant at the Modern German Studies Department. Shortly after returning to Germany, he established a language mentoring programme as an integrative learning concept, in which students can help academically trained refugees learn German and thereby create a place for intercultural exchange.

More than one hundred students showed up at the information meeting in autumn 2015 – too many for the 20 or so language mentors, whom Willand had originally planned to train at the Language Centre. Ever since then, for about 90 minutes each week, these students have been working together with “their” small groups, while Willand and his colleagues Yvonne Zimmermann and Fabian Dirscherl have managed the organisational aspects. In that one semester, he spent 200 to 250 hours on the project writing emails and designing flyers. “The refugees have an incredible desire to come in contact with students,” the German Studies post-doc explains. “Every day after they arrive, they study in the libraries for hours on end so that they can make contact as quickly as possible.”

Additional capacities

The project has received funding from the DAAD since April 2016. Thanks to the DAAD programme “Welcome - Students Helping Refugees”, the university can now afford to employ a staff member to manage the language mentoring project for eight to ten hours a week. The programme is financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Funding can be used to pay staff in self-organised student projects, as well as those involved in university integration programmes. They can offer tutorials, provide mentoring, produce info materials and help with translations and language courses. Material expenses are also fundable. “With this programme, we wish to support the fantastic volunteer commitment that we’re seeing at most universities in the long term,” says DAAD President Prof. Margret Wintermantel.

The programme has enabled the University of Stuttgart to finance six staff members in total: for the project “Discussions about Democracy”, for the documentation of a construction project, in which students and staff of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning designed a “Place of Encounter”, and for the “Friends of Refugees” in the international mentoring programme. By way of info events, excursions, recreational activities and discussions, the programme helps refugees get situated at university more quickly. “We’re happy about the funding,” says Nina Jürgens of the University of Stuttgart, who oversees all the “Welcome Campus” projects and activities. “It brings new momentum to our projects – there’s always the desire to do more, but we usually don’t have enough capacity.”

Multifaceted projects

According to Katharina Riehle, head of the department “Higher Education Programmes for Refugees” at the DAAD, 85 universities of applied sciences, 69 universities, six art and music academies and two teacher training colleges submitted funding applications for a broad range of Welcome project proposals. “Every state in Germany is participating, all the major universities and numerous universities of applied sciences are represented – the result is a very diverse spectrum of projects which we’re delighted about.” While some institutions applied with very concrete projects in mind and had already started implementing them, other projects were only just getting off the ground. “It’s impressive to see how intensively the institutions are looking at how they can contribute to the refugee issue,” says Riehle. The substantial interest in the Welcome programme demonstrates how strong the demand is.

The selected projects receiving funding are extremely multifaceted. The University of Applied Sciences in Bremerhaven, for example, is offering a student-run buddy and tandem programme which includes campus tours, excursions and a student café. The “TUtor International” team at the TU Darmstadt, which has provided assistance to foreign students for many years, is now taking prospective student refugees on guided tours of the campus and the University and State Library. Because many tutors can speak the refugees’ native languages, it makes explaining the degree programmes and departments much easier. At the University of Cologne, law students offer free legal counselling to refugees at the “Refugee Law Clinic Cologne” and accompany them to the municipal authorities. Moreover, the university offers language courses which are specially tailored to the needs of academically qualified refugees. The Department of Oriental Studies at the university is providing translation support and intercultural training courses.

Orientation at the universities

The Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin was one of the first universities in Berlin to offer free guest-student status to refugees in the winter semester 2015/2016. Currently more than 100 student refugees are attending courses in this way. The university began by evaluating which departments were attracting the most interest and then networked student projects active in those departments, five of which the DAAD is supporting with a total of twelve staff members. The Faculty of Economics and Business Administration offers tutorials and a mentoring programme, while the Faculty of Life Sciences assigns “buddies” to student refugees. “Aside from the language difficulties, we find that the biggest challenge facing refugees is gaining orientation at the university, understanding the German university system and finding the right contact partners,” explains Inse Böhmig, advisor at the Department for University Internationalisation. The university wants to help them.

Some 80 students and staff of the Geography Department organise events called “Spaces of Encounter” at locations near three refugee shelters and offer academic advising in Farsi and Arabic to academically qualified refugees. With funding from the DAAD, the Refugee Law Clinic, which had previously offered refugee- and asylum-related legal counselling at the shelters, can now provide a one-hour advising session at the university on laws pertaining to foreigners and refugees.

Atmosphere and tolerance

The projects at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin (HTW) aim to help prospective student refugees become better acquainted with the atmosphere of the university. That is why – along with advising, information, language training and skill acquisition – the “Mitlaufen” (Come Along) project is so important. Originally intended for prospective students from non-academic families, the project now offers academically qualified refugees the opportunity to become familiar with university life – by going to lectures, the dining hall, the library and the university sports programme. Angela Weißköppel, research assistant at the HTW, stresses that “the university has a social responsibility in the integration process and promoting a culture of tolerance. The students are multipliers in this process.”

Author: Sarah Kanning