I never expected that I’d get accepted into the DAAD program. It was one of those “reach” opportunities that was a nice thought. But when I received an email notifying me that I was successfully matched with a German university, I was so thankful that I was free to pursue a summer abroad.
DAAD is a German exchange program that funds foreign students to pursue research and education at a German university. While the program I’m in is specifically for foreign STEM students, it also supports the humanities and arts as well. The DAAD program is unique because while you’re part of a “program,” you have complete autonomy. I work at the University of Magdeburg, answer to my graduate student, and have no connection to the program whatsoever. While there are around 500 students from the UK, Canada, and US studying here thanks to DAAD, I have no idea who they are, where they are, or what they’re doing. In essence, DAAD is a mysterious entity that sends me the occasional email and deposits a paycheck once a month.
But this feeling of individuality and isolation changed when I traveled to Heidelberg for 3 days for the DAAD meeting. Orchestrated and funded completely by DAAD, this was the single chance to meet all the fellow program participants, hear about their research, and learn about other opportunities supported by DAAD.
When I was on my last train to Heidelberg, I was suddenly surrounded by conversations that I could understand. The train was filled with English speaking students, and it was the most bizarre feeling. As we navigated our way from the train station to the hostel, we were easily identified as hoards of people congregating, checking our phones for a map, starting in one direction, and then quickly turning around after we realized we were heading in the wrong direction.
While 500 people were matched with a German host university, only slightly more than 300 were funded by DAAD. These were the students that arrived at the youth hostel for the 2 day meeting to exchange conversation and research interests. It turned out that the girls I was talking with on the train were my roommates, so we were already good friends by the time we got to our room.
The conference took place at the new University of Heidelberg campus. The old campus is in the city center and consists of facilities oriented towards the arts and humanities. The new campus was constructed about 30 minutes outside of Heidelberg and contains all the buildings, labs, and research facilities for science and engineering students. The campus was a short walk from the hostel, and we were an obnoxious procession that took forever to cross a road. Friday evening was spent listening to welcome speeches and comments from representatives from the US, Canada, and UK. After that, we had to navigate our way back to the hostel, but this time through a 5K race. This proved to be quite amusing and very much impossible. We circumnavigated the race route (kind of) and then enjoyed a barbecue and party at the hostel. There was tons of food, volleyball, live music, and lots of dancing. Only a few people were left standing by the time the band played their last song, but I’m proud to say I was among the small crowd.
Saturday morning was spent listening to fellow students present their summer research projects. I made it a point to listen to a talk from every discipline – biology, physics, engineering, and earth sciences. That concluded the conference, but there was a guided tour of Heidelberg that I opted to go on with some friends. We had an adorable tour guide who educated us about the history of Heidelberg and pointed out significant landmarks. She also took us to the top of the hill to see the Heidelberg Castle. And in the castle cellars I witness the worlds largest beer barrel.
The meeting in Heidelberg was such a memorable experience not merely due to the beauty of the city, but due to the generosity of DAAD and the amazing people I met. From the hostel room to all the meals, guided city tour, and entrance tickets to the castle, everything was covered by DAAD. It was obvious by the weekend’s end that it wasn’t so much about the research, but rather giving us all a chance to meet, talk, and celebrate. I will never see anyone from the conference again, but the people I met were the highlight of my time in Heidelberg – they were like my German family. They completed the trip, right until the very end when we enjoyed a spectacular fireworks display that sent us off with a real bang.