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Arriving at University

US and German cultural scripts in Higher Education crash most obviously during freshers (orientation) week.* Nostalgic social network posts and an American husband’s meticulous following of his Alma Mater freshers’ arrival brought on some discussion about the vast differences in rituals concerning arriving at a university (college) to take up an undergraduate degree.

First of all, the experience in the US seems to be one of a rite of passage, a story of growing up and becoming self-reliant. A story of leaving the family’s protective nest to stand on ones own feet. I was told that indeed the fathers and mothers (using here a very traditional family unit) bring their offspring to campus, quite often with siblings in tow; only to hand over daughters and sons into what appears a strongly prescribed  network of hierarchies with competitive sports, clubs, study groups, sororities and fraternities, a university news paper and having to share rooms during your first year.

Arriving at university alone, my car crammed to the roof with books, duvet, and what ever I could think off may be necessary, I haunted the accommodation staff urgently needing a room. I arrived last minute due to personal circumstances. So with more luck than planning I found a room. Others would follow, similarly flustered and glad for a roof over their heads.

Freshers week in the US seems to be taken seriously, a true introduction into the academic society that will be your home for the next three to four years. You can apparently try out courses, events, societies and groups to join, there are guides and help.

We did not have such a thing as freshers week, on hitting university, I had to pick up the course catalogs of three different faculties**, trying to figure out which modules gave me the right points and did not run at the same time as other modules with one of the other faculties. Building my timetable was an exercise that would take up to three days of shuffling and sorting out each semester.

Hearing the stories of arriving at a university (college) in the US seems to me like arriving at a safe place. A place where you are taken care off. There are things like refectories, and food cards, you even get breakfast on campus, and dinner! These are campuses in the truest sense of the word, enclosed worlds within a town, havens of learning.

My Alma Mater had 30.000 students, it was chaotic, spread its tentacles across the whole city with several sub-campuses and dorms spread strategically along tram lines all over town. It was exciting, scary, and felt like being thrown into the deep end—it was freedom.

*I have to say that my experiences are 12 years old, and while the US experience has not changed the German one has. Also I compare ivy league with a system that does not have such things (or did not until very recently).

** In the old—pre-streamlined—European education system, you could, and I had the luck to be one of the last ones being able to do so, puzzle your degree together like a military strategist a battle plan. … interestingly enough:  this is the way towards which ‘consuming’ education develops, for now mainly in e-learning.

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Nathalie Sheridan

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