I remember the day I received my offer from the University of St Andrews like it was yesterday. In the middle of my gap year in Berlin, during a cold afternoon in January 2015, I received e-mail notifications from both UCAS and the University. Next thing I knew, I was jumping around the living room, overjoyed by my unconditional offer.
As I loved my life in Berlin, I decided that I would only study in the UK if I got accepted by my first choice, which was the University of St Andrews. If not, I would have stayed in Germany. Although I was deeply saddened about the idea of leaving Berlin and all the new friends I had made there, I was excited about the opportunities that studying in a unique and prestigious institution would bring me.
However, as time passed and my year in Berlin came to an end, I felt more and more reluctant about coming to St Andrews. The excitement I had felt at the beginning slowly started to fade away, and I started viewing St Andrews in a negative light before even stepping foot in Scotland. This pessimism followed me for almost two years, tarnishing my whole student experience. The only thing that kept me going was the interest I had for my classes, and my frequent escapades to Berlin and my hometown Geneva thanks to EasyJet.
Although I did meet many wonderful people in St Andrews, I felt frustrated to be in such a small town and wondered what I was doing in a university where balls and black-tie events were a monthly occurrence; which wasn’t what I was looking for at all. The few parties and events I attended left me feeling bitter and my stubbornness kept me from trying to make more efforts or attempt to discover some other sides of St Andrews that I probably never knew about.
During my third year, I had the opportunity to escape the bubble for a while.
I applied to study abroad at the University of Hamburg for a year, thinking it would give me the chance to further improve my German language skills, discover a new side of Germany, and bring me closer to Berlin. It all started incredibly well: I found a beautiful apartment in the lovely neighbourhood of Eimsbüttel which was close to the university. I bought a bike to get around and started discovering the city. I arrived there with a positive attitude; it felt like a fresh start.
Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany after Berlin and is home to one of the world’s largest ports. With a population of roughly 1.8 million people, I believed it was the perfect environment for my studies, as it was big enough for me to feel some sense of anonymity —which I genuinely needed after living in St Andrews— but not big enough to distract me from my studies. One of the things I liked the most, was the fact that one could easily distinguish three sides of Hamburg: the maritime side, the alternative side, and the futuristic side.
First of all, there is the maritime Hamburg. On the Elbe, huge cranes dominate the landscape. Even if today everything is mechanised, seeing the ballet of cargo ships and containers piling up in the port of Hamburg is a fascinating sight. Moreover, just like Berlin, Hamburg has an alternative side. The Sankt Pauli neighbourhood is the epicentre of the alternative scene of the city and counts many unique clubs, eccentric bars, and a vibrant nightlife. The futuristic Hamburg is HafenCity, the newest district enlarging the city on the banks of the Elbe. This is one of the most significant projects of European urban development, and the playground of great architects like Zaha Hadid, who designed the Elbe Promenade, or Herzog and de Meuron’s magnificent Elbphilarmornie, which became a symbol for the city. I fell in love with the Nordic charm of Hamburg, and . met many interesting people, from both inside and outside the university. Nevertheless, after weeks of studying at Hamburg University, I started having thoughts that made me question everything.
I actually missed the University of St Andrews, and I realised during this past year in Hamburg how much I took the privilege of studying there for granted. Even though life over there wasn’t my cup of tea, I felt delighted with my degree choice in IR. In my experience, my classes were extremely interesting, I was guided by excellent professors, and the motivation of the students around me was contagious.
At Hamburg University, the student experience, the choice of topics, and configuration of classes was completely different, which may be suitable for many students, but unfortunately not for me.
In the German university system, the minimum time to finish an undergraduate degree is three years, separated into six semesters. However, students can take as many modules as they want per semester, and therefore, most students take four to six years to finish their degree.
In the department of political science, where I had all my classes, I had to choose second and third level modules, which weren’t in the form of lectures and tutorials, but seminars.
However, instead of having an actual class taught by a professor, most of my classes were solely student presentations followed by a group discussion. Furthermore, instead of exams or essays during the semester, we had essays to write in-between semesters, giving a new meaning to what should have been considered holidays.
The purpose of this article isn’t to criticise the German university system, and I’m aware that the experiences of each student differ. Some students need more freedom while some require certain levels of pressure, just like some prefer exams while others would instead write essays. Besides, an example from a single university in each country hardly speaks for its entire educational system.
Nevertheless, without my year in Hamburg, I would have never realised how great the University of St Andrews actually is, and how lucky I am to be one of its students. Therefore, benefits of leaving on an academic exchange aren’t limited to seeing the world, enhancing a CV, discovering a new culture, or perfecting a language. It can also give the opportunity for and personal development.
My time in Hamburg improved my German speaking skills, changed my perspective on St Andrews, and showed me a side of Germany I didn’t know about.
As a final point, despite some disappointments, I don’t regret my choice to study abroad, and I am grateful for this experience. For the first time, I landed at Edinburgh Airport with a positive attitude, excited to make the most of my final year at St Andrews.