From orphan to member of the Bundestag
The year 1989, when people in the German Democratic Republic took to the streets to protest for freedom and ultimately brought down the wall, marked the beginning of a period of uncertainty for Karamba Diaby. The native of Senegal had come to the GDR a few years before on a scholarship to study chemistry at Martin-Luther-University of Halle-Wittenberg. “What happens when the country that invited you no longer exists?” he wondered. What would happen to his scholarship? Would he have to return to his home country, without a degree and therefore labelled a “failure”, as he feared?
Fortunately, that did not happen, as Dr. Karamba Diaby told the story in late November 2019 at the welcoming celebration for DAAD scholarship holders from Berlin and Brandenburg at Freie Universität in Berlin (FU): The DAAD stepped in and continued the scholarship programmes of the GDR, allowing several thousand young men and women to continue their studies. “I am very grateful to the DAAD for taking over my scholarship back then,” Diaby remembers. He has come a long way since then: Since 2013, he has been a member of the German Bundestag – the first with African roots.
Study scholarship in the GDR
More than 200 bachelor’s and master’s students, doctoral candidates, postdocs and researchers, all of them current DAAD scholarship holders, listened to Diaby’s riveting account in Berlin. The fact that his life’s journey would take him from Senegal to the German Bundestag was anything but foreseeable. Diaby had lost both his parents when he was still a child and had been raised by his sister. Despite such hardship, he managed to score high marks in his school leaving certificate in the natural sciences.
At the university in Dakar, he heard about the possibility of studying abroad and was granted a scholarship for the GDR. “It was one of the greatest days of my life when I received that fax,” says Diaby. Now he had an opportunity to earn his degree abroad and learn a new language. “Now it is all up to you,” Diaby remembers thinking the moment he arrived in the DDR. The fall of the wall would be a stroke of luck for him personally as well.
Inspired by the critical spirit at German universities
For many of the young listeners at FU Berlin, much of their experience in Germany still lies ahead. One of them is Michael Adu Gyamfi. The native of Ghana has been working on a doctorate on renal diseases at Berlin’s Charité University clinic since October 2019. His research focuses on antibodies that are connected with the rejection of transplants. “I was looking for a way to continue my training and get to know the latest research technologies in this field,” says Gyamfi. “Here in Berlin I can do just that.”
Romanian native Greta Dadalau has been in Germany longer. She first earned a bachelor's degree in civilisation studies at the University of Koblenz-Landau on a DAAD scholarship. Since 2018, she has been working on her master's degree in Eastern European studies at FU Berlin thanks to a follow-on scholarship. Her time in Germany has already benefited her greatly, the student reports. Among other aspects, she is inspired by the critical spirit at German universities, she says. “Critically questioning even the articles by the professor in a seminar – that was new to me in the beginning,” says the 23-year-old. During her stay she has already built a large network of people from very different countries and has made lots of friends.
Funding for study and research visits
Every year, the DAAD funds well over 100,000 students and academics like Michael Adu Gyamfi and Greta Raluca around the globe – which makes it the world’s largest funding organization for academic mobility. Through the DAAD scholarship database, students, doctoral candidates and PhD graduates can find funding for study and research visits at universities as well as non-university research institutes.
At the event in Berlin, DAAD Secretary General Dr. Dorothea Rüland emphasised the importance of an active exchange with other cultures. The exchange creates “a cultural understanding and more openness toward others.” These personal experiences, she said, are the basis for the larger, more far-reaching effects of international academic exchange. All of the great challenges of our time, such as climate change, are global challenges, Rüland explained. Their solutions absolutely depend on international cooperation.
“International impulses shape the way we do research”
FU President Professor Günter M. Ziegler illustrated how greatly universities benefit from the exchange: “International impulses shape the way we do research and the way students live on campus.” FU is hosting students, doctoral candidates and teachers from 130 countries. 14 percent of academics at FU are from another country – and if the President has his way about it, that number will continue to increase.
The number of international students should keep growing at the national level as well, said Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office. “We want even more to come,” says Müntefering. Currently, more than 375,000 international students are enrolled in Germany. In an international comparison, Germany comes in at 4th place – and it is the first non-English-speaking country on the list.
Progress through opposition
She is worried about the fact that in recent years, scepticism toward an open society and foreigners has grown around the world, Müntefering further stated. That goes for the academic realm as well. In many countries, facts are questioned more strongly, science budgets are cut and researchers cannot publish freely. “We must not allow this to happen,” said Müntefering. “We believe in progress through opposition.”
Academic freedom is indispensable for democracy, for progress, development and prosperity. It is about finding answers together to the question of what kind of world we want to live in. “Where exchange is possible, reason has a chance – and where reason has a chance, communication does as well,” said Müntefering. “And where communication has a chance, peace has a chance too.”
What experiences have you had in Germany?
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