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12 January 2000

Foreign Ministry Prize for ´Studentenwerk´ Heidelberg

10,000 marks for its outstanding achievements in the service for foreign students - All-inclusive ´Service Paket´ package can be booked from your homeland via Internet

´The Studentenwerk´ Heidelberg (performing a similar function to a students' union but run by the University authorities and organised a public law corporation) helps deal with the general problems which most students are likely to encounter in their study and everyday life.) got a very special kind of New Year surprise: an award from the Germany's Foreign Ministry. The jury, made up of representatives from the Foreign Ministry, from universities and colleges and from the Deutsches Akademisches Austauschdienst (DAAD / German Academic Exchange Service) suggested that the award (worth 10,000 marks) be given to the Studentenwerk for its noteworthy accomplishments in terms of foreign-student care. This prize, the brainchild of former foreign minister Dr. Klaus Kinkel, is awarded to individuals or institutions that make studying and living in Germany easier for foreign students.

Heidelberg's Studentenwerk really has achieved a lot in this area. In December 1997 the Standing Conference of Germany's Minister-Presidents called on the universities and colleges in Germany to make themselves more attractive for students abroad, having established considerable deficits in the social care of foreign students. At that time the Studentenwerk already began to develop an extensive concept which enabled it to put the requirements from the conference immediately into practice. With a broad range of measures the Studentenwerk helps foreign students to get used to life in Germany, promotes contact with other students and supports them in maintaining their own cultural identities.
"Heidelberg is a centre of higher education and has the highest percentage of students from foreign countries among all traditional universities in Germany. Therefore it is essential that we cater for the specific needs of foreign students," explains Dieter Gutenkunst, director of the Heidelberg Studentenwerk. "We think it is very important that their studies are not only successful from an academic point of view. So we try to make sure that they also feel happy in their new surroundings and can take back home pleasant memories of Heidelberg."

The Studentenwerk is responsible for looking after the 28,000 students at Heidelberg University and the Pädagogische Hochschule (College of Education)´, among them more than 4,000 foreign students from no fewer than 180 countries. Thus the people working for the Studentenwerk know all about the problems of foreign students. Starting with the journey here, and sometimes even before, the most common difficulties are looking for accommodation, finding one`s way around and getting through the inevitable mountains of paperwork. For newcomers without any idea where to turn, the very first days of the stay are likely to be full of stress and uncertainty.

That`s why the Studentenwerk has set up a facility all foreign students can apply to right after their arrival: the Infocenter (Information Centre) on Universitätsplatz (University Square). The first thing they get there is a cup of coffee and after that advice and active help with all the problems arising when they start studying in Heidelberg. There is assistance with everything from finding accommodation or a job to filling in the forms for the residents` registration office (available at the Infocenter) or the application for health insurance. If anyone doesn`t know enough German, he will find someone there who speaks his mother tongue. As many foreign students arrive on a weekend, the Infocenter stays open on Saturdays at the beginning of the semester.

Once the first hurdles are overcome, the Studentenwerk sees to providing the newcomers with opportunities to get in touch with other students as soon as possible. Of the Studentenwerk´s student hostels´ 3,500 inhabitants, about 40% have a foreign passport, so the individual can easily get lost in the anonymity of being just a face in the crowd. That is why there are student tutors who look after their foreign housemates and help everybody to make friends. These tutors work on an honorary basis; the only benefit they gain is the right to live in the hall of residence longer than they could otherwise.

It goes without saying that the Studentenwerk does not restrict its various services to those staying in one of its student hostels. All you have to do for some socializing is come to the Haus der Studierenden (Nicknamed ´Studihaus´: Students' House). Since the Studentenwerk puts rooms in the Studihaus at the disposal of international groups of students for free, foreign guest students can also meet people from their respective home countries there. Besides, a multitude of international newspapers and magazines are available. In order to keep in touch with home free of charge, they can go to Germany´s biggest Internet café for students with 36 computer stations on the Neuenheimer Feld campus or visit the Café Olé in the Mensa (union building)´ at the Universitätsplatz.

Even before their arrival in Heidelberg foreign students are given the possibility to get in contact with students in Heidelberg. The 'HeiNe Program´ , short for the Heidelberger Netzwerk (Heidelberg Network), a partnership scheme initiated by the Studentenwerk, finds correspondent (tutor) partners for foreign students, thus promoting initial contact through the exchange of e-mails, letters, faxes or phone calls prior to their journey here.

On top of that, there are a multitude of cultural activities, as well as workshops and excursions. Apart from that newcomers can always ask someone if they have special questions. A special offer for foreign students is the so-called ´Service Paket´– which can be booked via Internet from the students' home and which includes everything they're likely to need, from accommodation to health insurance and the SemesterTicket (a season ticket for public transport during the whole semester). This packet even offers computers or bicycles students can take out on loan.

The Studentenwerk has a lot of other ideas which are going to be realised gradually. For example, a special programme for supplying lodgings for those foreign students who are going to spend just a couple of months in Heidelberg; or re-integration activities for those who are going to return home after completing their studies here. The prize money will certainly help to realise such projects.

But actual achievements and not just plans were the main reason for the Foreign Ministry to award this prize. Mr Dieter Gutenkunst sees the prize as an appreciation of what his colleagues and several students working in honorary capacities have done so far. Due to staff shortages there has only been one colleague caring full-time for the students' welfare in the students' hostels, providing social guidance, organising international evening- meetings and so on- and that for a limited period of time only. Everything else has been taken over by other colleagues and students working additionally and voluntarily on Saturdays- a fact which, after a normal week's work, certainly can' t be taken for granted, but which, nevertheless, has regularly been the case at the beginning of the semester. Especially the work in the student hostels, done for students by students, deserves the highest commendation.

(translated by Christiane Berg, Daniela Brunner, Dinara Hübner, Chung Hye-yeon, Institute of Translation and Interpreting, University of Heidelberg)

Please address any inquiries to:
Renate Homfeld, phone:06221-542656
e-mail: wo.stw.@urz.uni-heidelberg.de


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