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Interview with an international office

“We’re there to make things more transparent”

Foreign students who come to university in Germany have a huge range of advisory services to choose from. Of the wealth of addresses available, the staff at the International Offices (Akademische Auslandsämter) know which is the right one to go to with your question. Daniela Simut-Perent, who is in charge of international students at Cologne University International Office, gives us an insight into her work.

What kinds of questions do you help foreign students with?

Often, the questions are about visas, residence and work permits, student funding or finding accommodation. Health insurance is another topic. And of course learning German and networking with other students.

What kind of support do you provide?

At the start of the semester, we hold information sessions to explain organisational issues to the students. Also, in relation to questions about their subject, we send them to the appropriate advisory services in the faculties and departments. In our own consultations, we provide advice about organising the course of your studies, student funding and individual questions. On the issue of residence permits, for example, we explain what kind of proof of financial means is required by the foreign nationals' registration authority: it might take the form of a blocked account into which the student paid sufficient money while still in his or her home country, a notification of a scholarship, or a declaration of commitment by another person, usually someone living in Germany. In certain cases, we help students before they arrive in Germany in getting a visa and contact the German mission in their home country. Furthermore, we work closely with other organisations: in collaboration with us, for example, the City of Cologne foreign nationals' registration authority has set up a student service to be able to respond more closely to the needs of this target group.

What support do you offer students once they have settled in?

First and foremost, we help students organise their studies properly. At German universities, students are relatively free to choose which modules and exams they take and when. This why at our university there are plenty of places to help students plan. Every faculty provides advice with regard to the subjects. One feature peculiar to Cologne is the “Studienstart International” programme which helps international students from non-EU countries to get off to the best possible start with their studies. Besides some initial events by field of study, permanent components of the programme include advanced German courses, a course on intercultural awareness, a series of orientation events and a “student proficiency” course. This introductory programme to studying deals with very concrete questions such as: what is a seminar, or how do I present a piece of homework?

Who helps students find their way through this vast offer of student orientation?

We’re there to make things more transparent. We show students where to find the support they need. During our consultation sessions, we point students to specific services. If the topic is language, we show the numerous possibilities offered by our “German as a Foreign Language” department. If students have questions about writing academic papers or things such as fear of exams, we point them to the counselling offered by the faculties or to the Cologne University student social services.

And what about contact-building and recreational activities?

Besides the recreational activities open to all at Cologne University, there are also special offers for international students. For example, the international university groups which we have set up, made up of students from specific countries or regions of the world, hold information events, readings and music evenings where foreign students can get valuable tips from fellow students from their home country and build contacts. In collaboration with the Cologne University student social services, they organise events such as international cookery sessions, “Café Babylon” for language exchanges, and breaking fast together during ramadan. We at the International Office organise excursions to help students learn about the geography and culture of Germany, while our TANDEM programme for language partnerships helps build up networks between international and German students.

What do you like about your job?

I love being able to help international students. It’s especially important when students are starting to give them the necessary information and also the feeling that they’re not alone. We’re delighted when students and alumni stay in contact with us and tell us about their successes, or get involved with helping "new" international students.

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