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8 April 2004

A Growing Alumni Family Worldwide

Albrecht Bayer supervises contacts with former Heidelberg students all over the world

Albrecht Bayer joined the International Academic Relations Office of the University of Heidelberg back in 1972. At the end of April 2004 he will be taking his leave for the richly deserved pleasures of retirement. In those 32 years he has devoted himself to one task more than any other: providing care and advice for international students and visiting academics. This has certainly kept him busy, after all more than 35,000 foreign visitors have come to the University in the last 25 years. "The German higher education system has a good reputation abroad," says Bayer. "The unity between research and teaching, Humboldt's specific theory of learning, the acquisition of a broad range of education as opposed to just swotting for one's own subject — all these factors still exert a major fascination."

What the University of Heidelberg stands for

There are also one or two local perks, including the romantic atmosphere of Heidelberg's charming Old Town and the unusually broad range of subjects the University offers. Bayer is convinced that, though they have come under fire recently, the smaller departments, frequently referred to half-admiringly and half-jokingly as "exotic", are part and parcel of the specific Heidelberg nimbus: "Today the image of what the University of Heidelberg stands for is very closely bound up with the exclusive range of studies it offers. From an international viewpoint it is the rarities you don't get elsewhere that make us interesting. They are a major contribution to the profile of the University."

When Albrecht Bayer arrived here 32 years ago, there were already a number of international connections but the idea of a global network of former students had yet to materialise. It was Bayer himself who triggered the Heidelberg Alumni initiative, drawing for the purpose on his experience as a coordinator of international EU university projects.

Rarities on offer

Today, at the end of his professional career, he can pass on to his successors a list of over 30,000 addresses of former students from 136 countries under the heading "Heidelberg Alumni International". A key experience for Bayer was the international summer course of the University in 1986. Some 100 former international students took part and asked him to create a platform for Heidelberg's alumni.

"Up to that time we had sent Christmas cards to former students all over the world," he recalls, "but we had no idea that there was such a high degree of community feeling." Bayer went through thousands of filing cards and wrote to 5,000 alumni. The results were surprising. In the course of one year, 40 percent of the alumni responded and the answer was always the same: "An alumni network is a great idea!" On the basis of this initial collection of international alumni careers, Bayer set about cultivating these contacts systematically. In 1996 Alumni International was established. Since then there have been regular meetings, there is an Alumni Service with a special Alumni Card and, last but not least, a magazine edited by Bayer with the title "Heidelberg Alumni International Revue". 5,000 copies of it are sent all over the world. Twice a year, when the latest issue comes off the presses, Bayer and his co-workers spend three days putting it in the envelopes and staggering off to the post office with it. The things that interest the alumni most are topics directly concerned with the University and student life.

Alumni network in the Lebanon?

Surgeon Hikmat Rizk, a professor at the Lebanese American University, studied medicine in Heidelberg from 1968 to 1974. He thinks back fondly to his time as a student. "Though there were some recurrent problems," he recalls, "I have always loved the romantic atmosphere of Heidelberg. It has lost none of its charm and it is the reason why Germany, and Heidelberg in particular, has become a second home for me." As an Oriental, Hikmat Rizk had some initial problems with the German mentality. "People seemed very severe, overly correct. But then I started adopting it myself. Though interpersonal contact was difficult at the outset, both the University administration and the state institutions were very welcoming." Today Rizk recommends Heidelberg to his students. One girl plans to come here to study. At present there is no alumni network in the Lebanon, but Professor Rizk intends to establish one. "I hope very much that Herr Albrecht Bayer's successors will carry on the good work and help make our wishes come true."

In a global knowledge world, the expectations of international students as to what the University can offer them have indeed become more well-defined. Accordingly, the International Relations Office provides what it calls "full service." Budding academics from abroad are given assistance throughout their careers here, from enrolment to exmatriculation. They are offered an acclimatisation week, a programme of excursions, tutorials and language courses. If necessary, they can also apply for legal and psychological counselling. "Living and studying belong together," says Albrecht Bayer. "It's up to us to offer students from abroad something they will appreciate and cherish, even when they've left. We get a great deal in return. Our students frequently come from the elites in their home countries. This way they become ambassadors for the University."

Sow now, reap later

If Heidelberg wants to be up among the leading universities of the world in future, this personal contact with its alumni must not neglect the financial aspect. The idea of fund-raising is still relatively new in Germany. But soon it will establish itself just as firmly as in the Anglo-American world. "We have to sow now if we want to reap at a later stage," says Bayer. "We may not see the fruits of this commitment to our alumni immediately. In fact, at the moment the money is going out rather than coming in. But in ten years' time we will find that we have laid the foundations for links that can consolidate the worldwide competitive position of the University."

This also involves the deployment of more staff and a consistent readiness to respond to suggestions from abroad. One step in the right direction is the establishment of Alumni Clubs organising on-the-spot alumni meetings and conferences in various countries. The ongoing experiment with the medical continuing education programme "" is also designed as a multiplying factor in favour of Heidelberg as an academic location. With this link alumni are given access to a multi-media knowledge base. They can contact experts from other disciplines in the framework of a virtual medical faculty and participate in conferences worldwide.

Bayer insists that in many areas of university life some major changes of attitude will be necessary. Public relations and publicising the University's achievements both to the outside world and on the inside have become incomparably more vital than before. Like a private company, the University is obliged not only to account for the money it spends but also to strengthen personal contacts alongside its commitment to research and teaching. Not only the international alumni but also their German counterparts need to be looked after more effectively. "The relationship between professors and their students used to be much closer," says Bayer, "and that made for a higher degree of identification once studies were over. The example of Gadamer is a case in point. In future this will mean that many professors will have to spend more time and energy on 'customer care' and commit themselves consciously to upholding the positive image of the University of Heidelberg all over the world."

Johannes Schnurr

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
Press Office of the University
phone: 542311

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