Former students of Göttingen University live all over the planet. When the alumni program recently invited those based in California, more than 80 former students of all ages and walks of life – Germans and US Americans alike – met at UC Berkeley. Realizing how many memories they share, they are planning to set up an alumni organization on the US West Coast.

„It has been more than three decades, but the exchange year at Göttingen University had a profound impact on me”, says Dr. Marielle Smith while some younger scientists listen. She is talking about 1984, when half of them weren’t even born yet. Also, Cold War Western Germany seems incredibly far from their current setting: a summer afternoon in the patio of UC Berkeley’s International House – a cliché of California, complete with palm trees, a cloudless sky and children splashing about in a water fountain.

But her listeners can relate to her words, because despite their difference in age and professions, they share the experience of having studied in Göttingen. They smile when she speaks of Wilhelmsplatz, WGs, demonstrations or the Mensa food – places and memories that were once pivotal in each of their lives and that have faded into the back of their minds, given how far away in space and time they live from Lower Saxony. 5,643 miles (9,082 kilometers) and nine hours time difference to be precise.

Reconnecting with the past

“Göttingen alumni live all over the planet”, says Bernd Hackstette, who has been director of the university’s Alumni program for the last 13 years. “We set up this meeting for our former students, who are now based in California, so that they can get to know each other across generations, build networks and reconnect with their Alma Mater.” No less than eighty former students and their families followed his invitation for an afternoon of presentations, barbecue and socializing on the historic UC Berkeley campus.

“I had studied political sciences at UC Irvine in Southern California, but coming to Göttingen, I realized how clueless and naïve my upbringing in ‘Republicanville’ had left me”, Smith continues. “That year truly politicized me: My German friends were discussing and protesting a lot, especially against the fact that the US still had large-scale weaponry on their military bases in Western Germany. I didn’t know anything about it before. As exchange student, I wasn’t allowed to join these demonstrations, but I started to see the US from an outsider’s perspective and become more cosmopolitan.” In Göttingen, Smith discovered her love for German literature. After her return to California, she transferred to German studies and eventually became Head of Human Resources of a Bay Area startup. Her year abroad was just the beginning: She has returned to Germany many times since.

Dr. Marielle Smith is one of more than 4,000 students from both the US and Germany, who took part in the Education Abroad Program (EAP) Germany. Initiated in 1963 by the University of California (UC), Göttingen was the first German partner university; it wasn’t until the 1990s that the program was extended to Berlin, Potsdam and Bayreuth.

“The ideal place to get your feet wet”

“The top British universities might be a more obvious choice for a US exchange student”, ponders Thomas Shannon, professor of German Linguistics at UC Berkeley, who sits two tables from Smith with his wife and daughter. “The students who went to Germany instead were the more adventurous ones, often interested in history or languages. And they all thrived in Göttingen.” Shannon and his family lived in the city from 2000 till 2002, while he was director of the UC Study Center.

“If you are a 20-year-old US American, Göttingen is the ideal place to get your feet wet without running into any serious trouble”, Shannon says with a smirk. He made sure that the US American EAP students would feel at home in Göttingen, select proper coursework and understand the administrative processes. “Unlike a metropolis like Berlin, where newcomers can get lost, Göttingen is übersichtlich as you would say in German, clearly arranged. It feels inviting, secure and comfortable – yet the amount of young people and independent thinkers make it the opposite of provincial.”

His wife Christa, a native of Cologne, agrees. “We even let our then 8-year-old daughter Stephanie go to the grocery shop on her own. In the US, this is unimaginable – far too dangerous for a child, even here in Berkeley. In Göttingen, we had lots of freedom.” She remembers the time in the student city as “two of the best years we had as a family”. They often invited US exchange students into their house in Göttingen’s East Side, the Ostviertel. While the three are chatting, one of Shannon’s former exchange students – now a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area – approaches the table. Seeing the young woman next to Thomas Shannon, he smiles: “You were the little girl playing the piano whenever we visited!”

Göttingen goes global

One of Shannon’s predecessors as program director was the renowned US scholar, author and Holocaust survivor Prof. Dr. Ruth Klüger. She wrote about her time in Göttingen in her books and became a guest lecturer afterwards.

“We were of course disappointed, when the UC Study Center moved from Göttingen to Berlin in 2010”, says Bernd Hackstette. But Göttingen keeps its international profile, as the university’s Vice President Prof. Dr. Hiltraud Casper-Hehne points out during her presentation in Berkeley: 18 per cent of the Göttingen faculty are internationals, as opposed to the German average of 11 per cent. In 2015, the university received the Institutional Award for Innovation in Internationalization for its outstanding strategy. “Our most recent innovations are summer schools for international students – some of them also from California – and a global internship program that we are preparing”, says Casper-Hehne.

The Vice President gives the audience a virtual tour of recently transformed campus buildings and presents strategic changes like the new status of the university as a Public Law Foundation and its applications for the German Excellence Initiative. The guests were surprised to hear that even in Göttingen, students and faculty demonstrated in a March for Science as a reaction to the new US administration.

Setting up alumni networks

“Unlike most US universities, Göttingen didn’t systematically collect alumni addresses in the past”, says Mark R. Dollhopf, the former director of the Yale Alumni Organization who counsels Göttingen University in its endeavor to set up local alumni organizations in Germany and around the world. “We need pioneers on the ground who are willing to get things started”, he calls on the audience. “This is a unique opportunity for networking and sharing your love of learning.” His aim is to create at least two networks in the US, one on the West and one on the East Coast in collaboration with local volunteers.

“Unlike in the US, our alumni in Asia already organize activities together and stay in contact”, Hackstette says. “We have groups in South Korea, China and Indonesia who meet regularly, some of them go hiking or read books together. And the Korean group just informed us that a former Göttingen PhD student, Park Sang-ki, has been appointed Minister of Justice.”

Alumni have found different ways to give back to their university, Hackstette continues. “Some donate money, others meet with students to talk about their own careers and professional opportunities in their field.” 600 to 700 students a year participate in this so-called Alumni for Students program – and they are especially eager to hear from international alumni, Hackstette emphasizes.

Well served with salad, chocolate cake and beer, the former Göttingen students discover fond memories with strangers – and even meet old acquaintances. Dr. Peter Hintz, a postdoc at UC Berkeley, sits between two friends he studied mathematics and physics with, one of whom he knew all along since orientation week, the notorious O-Phase. “I have been living in California for six years now and we have been living close for so long without seeing each other”, he says. It seems as if the three of them won’t lose sight of each other again, with or without an alumni network.

Christina Felschen, journalist and photographer in San Francisco, M.A. at Göttingen University 2008

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