Having completed my undergraduate degree at Uganda’s most renowned university, I was armed with great expectations as I embarked on my journey as a student in Germany. My gap year as an Au pair in Wuppertal prior to my B.A. made me yearn once again for academia. I would probably make new friends, become a ‘mover and shaker’ at university clubs, of course go to parties and then book-worm to balance it all out ... after all, all work without play ... Plus I was curious; what was different? Are their libraries more stocked than ours — you know, with more books and computers? This was around 2006 and personal laptops were just becoming a thing in Kampala. What I initially underestimated was the possibility of encountering culture shock in a university setting.
Brace yourself, creating a social circle can literally take forever!
Some of my long term friendships emerged during my time as a student at Makerere. For instance in the lecture or seminar hall, at a Guild meeting, at the gym in Club Five, via one of my roommate’s ‘benchers’ etc. It is surprising how fast acquaintances quickly turned into friends and close friends. Not so at my commuter-university (Pendler-Uni) in Germany. After my first year I quickly learned that university here isn't primarily place for making or meeting friends. Students mainly come to study and in the evenings go back to their family and their intact social circles. Wuppertal is strategically located in the West that is, it is close to some of Germany’s big cities (Cologne, Düsseldorf) and industrial areas (the Ruhr region). Being a Pendler-Uni many of its students are likely to be commuters with an intact circle of friends. Venturing into other circles can take a while. Also the reserved German netiquette initially made it harder to make friends as fast as I was used to. The interactions and conversations were mostly superficial and purpose-driven. This went on a few semesters before I could finally find fellow students to hold opinionated conversations with over a coffee or tea.
Education is a right and is therefore ... free!
You heard right — public universities in Germany do not charge tuition fees, not even for international students! Sadly however, word has it that in the coming years some federal states might re-introduce tuition fees targeted specifically at international students [eye roll]. For now, though, a fee of around € 300 is levied per semester (6 months) and it partly contributes to the subsidisation of services for students such as lunch in the university Mensa, access to public facilities such as swimming pools, the cinema and theatres as well as the highly desired Semesterticket — a free pass for public transport (the bus, tram and regional trains) within an entire federal state! It took a trip to London for me to appreciate the luxury of free public transport and tuition-free tertiary education in Europe.
Black privilege: I had never "felt" ‘Black’ until now
It was not primarily because people gave me “the look” or made me feel like I did not belong. It was mainly the realisation that there were not so many ‘Black’ students at my university when I had just started out. I certainly bumped into more people of colour in other settings than at the university. It was the sudden feeling of loneliness that constantly overcame me while sitting in the largest lecture hall that was filled to capacity. I sometimes wondered if everyone was staring at me. I could feel my pulse rise at the thought of it. What privilege it was having been part of the majority at Makerere! I recalled staring at the old ‘White’ gentleman that seemed lost in the sea of ‘Blackness’ in the School of Education auditorium back then. I was lost in the sea of ‘Whiteness’ now. And this became more apparent when I would make a verbal contribution in my German-taught seminars. I could sometimes literally hear a pin-drop — a sign that the entire seminar was trying to grasp what the foreign accent was saying. This acute self-awareness was initially something of a shock. It took a while for me to straighten my hat and learn how to navigate this space while refraining from the overwhelming urge to deem my ‘Black’ candle.
Welcome to freedom of choice ... It can easily get overwhelming, though
My memories of the long queues in front of the white boards at Makerere’s School of Education at the beginning of every semester are still quite vivid. We always lined up to get a copy of the latest timetable. The weekly lecture and seminar slots were cut out for you, just like they were in high school. Not so at a public university in Germany! Since German bureaucracy seems to adore laws and the paper work that goes into it, you will first of all get a Prüfungsordnung, which is a detailed booklet, very often in German, explaining the regulations you have to follow in order to successfully complete your course of study. These include the compulsory credits and how they must be achieved. Additionally, there are a variety of course types (lectures or seminars) that are offered per semester. You have the freedom to choose which courses you find interesting — but careful, double-check first with your Prüfungsordnung. And importantly, it is your job to do so, not the job of the examinations board (Zentrales Prüfungsamt). The credits and course type must match the regulations in the Prüfungsordnung, lest you have serious problems graduating. It was a relief to discover that even my German-bred counterparts were struggling with the meticulous attention to detail entailed in this system of bureaucracy.
The friendly professor-student rapport
I must say that the friendliness of most professors, lecturers and tutors is what struck me during my first semester as an undergrad. I made use of the office hours to discuss term paper topics or to even mourn about the rigid Bachelor/Master programmes or to get a recommendation for switching courses. Even during those intimidating office hour meetings where I had to speak German, I still felt like the lecturers always took time to attend to all my queries and make sound recommendations.