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Far from home during corona

Almost all alone in Hamburg

Going to university means starting a new life chapter, making new friends and broadening your horizons. Many international students look forward not only to their studies at HAW Hamburg and getting to know a new language and culture, but also and above all to interacting with the people here.

Lachende Studentin bei der Welcome Week 2019

Before the pandemic, settling in at HAW Hamburg was much easier for international students.

More than 12 per cent of all students in Hamburg in winter semester 2020/21 came from other countries. At HAW Hamburg alone, more than 2,050 international students are currently enrolled. But how are these students managing at the university these days, especially those who are completing a Bachelor's or Master's degree? We look here particularly at those students who are at HAW Hamburg for the duration of their Master's or Bachelor's studies.

Exceptional challenges at the beginning of studies

Before the pandemic, international students who had been admitted to HAW Hamburg were already one big step closer to their goal. Today, a series of other questions follow: How do I get a visa if the embassies aren't offering any appointments? How do I get to Germany when my country is a high-risk area and it's not possible to enter Germany? Where do I spend the quarantine period if the hotels are closed and I still don't have an apartment in Hamburg? How do I even find an apartment in the city at the current time?

Teresa Schaubs, Mariana Müller and Wiebke Bendt of the International Office  help where they can: 'We're now able to help quickly with the most frequently asked questions – such as where people can get tested in Hamburg, how international students can obtain financial support and who can provide them with legal advice in extreme cases.'

Some students are benefitting from the digital semester: they can start their studies from their home country and then come to Germany when the situation has relaxed somewhat. 'Of course, they have to take into account that because of time differences some seminars take place in the middle of the night for the students and that it's only possible to attend with the right equipment and a stable Internet connection,' says Schaubs. 'We advise our students and prospective students about the pros and cons of starting their studies from home – but in they end they have to decide for themselves.'


We advise our students and prospective students about the pros and cons of starting their studies from home – but in they end they have to decide for themselves.

Teresa Schaubs, International Office – Service for International Students

The situation for international students in Hamburg

The corona pandemic has turned the everyday lives of everyone at HAW Hamburg upside down – but it has presented extra challenges for students who speak and understand little or no German, who are worried about their families and friends at home in addition to being worried about their own situation, and who face the question of whether and how they can continue their studies at HAW Hamburg.

At the end of summer semester 2020, the International Office surveyed the international students at the university about their situation. The answers provide insights and reflect the topics that are currently typical in advising conversations. For an especially large number of students, the language is an invisible but almost insurmountable barrier. This barrier includes the absence of exchanges for learning the language, problems understanding, and too little or delayed information in English on the HAW Hamburg website. 

'I feel really lonely.'

Even more so than domestic students, the international students are also facing financial hardships – both their own and the financial worries of their families back home. Unlike German students, international students are generally not entitled to receive BAföG (federally funded student financial assistance) and have to cover their living expenses completely on their own. This survival-related stress is accompanied by emotional stress: anxiety and loneliness dictate the everyday lives of many of the students. 'I feel really lonely in Germany and miss my family,' says one student. Another adds: 'I don't participate very actively in seminars and I find it difficult to interact with the professors in the normal lectures. In the current situation it's even more complicated. And I'm having trouble learning and studying at the moment.' Because contact with fellow students is often only possible in a limited way through the online courses at the moment, many international students don't have the opportunity to experience the full diversity of HAW Hamburg, its 17,000 students and its numerous offers. In some cases this leads to negative impressions: 'Many are not prepared to cooperate with or get to know us. They often come with preconceived ideas as stereotypes and hold these up to us as our reflection.' And the student adds: 'Unfortunately, this behaviour was also there before corona.'

I feel really lonely in Germany and miss my family.

A student commenting on their current situation during the corona pandemic

The International Office and the Student Counselling Office provide assistance

The advisers from the International office are the first point of contact for the international students. Alongside the central advising services in the Stiftstraße building at Berliner Tor Campus, Christine Reinking and Wiebke Bendt of the Information Engineering and Public Health degree courses are the direct contact people for students.

Students can also obtain (psychological) support from the HAW Hamburg Student Counselling Office. Because of corona this mostly takes place by phone or online, but the counsellors are also available on site.

More would be welcome

What the survey on international students' situation during corona also shows is that new learning methods and the flexibility of many instructors are a significant plus. 'We still don't know about each individual student's experience through the survey. But by interacting with one another, the international students could of course help one another much better directly,' says Bendt of the International Office. 'At the beginning of the new semester we started our Welcome Weeks online, and we will focus more closely on networking among the students. Where it is permissable despite corona, we will also make in-person meetings between two people possible,' adds Teresa Schaubs.

Text: Anke Blacha

Helpful information on the HAW Hamburg website

International Students

Advising Services

Contact Information

Coronavirus Updates

Studierendenwerk – information for international students