| University, Studies

"People are more than their CVs"

"Yes, I come from a family of non-academics. And that is still far too rare at German universities today," says Laureen Hannig. The 22-year-old has been studying "International Relations" and "Communication Studies" at the University of Erfurt since 2019. And she is committed to young people whose parents also did not study, but who want to take a different path themselves. In the initiative "Arbeiterkind.de".

Laureen Hannig
Laureen Hannig

"Yes, I come from a family of non-academics. And that is still far too rare at German universities today," says Laureen Hannig. The 22-year-old has been studying "International Relations" and "Communication Studies" at the University of Erfurt since 2019. And she is committed to young people whose parents also did not study, but who would like to pursue an academic career themselves. In the "Arbeiterkind.de" initiative. "At the very beginning of my involvement, I asked myself whether I should openly mention my background, but there is no reason to hide it. That's exactly how prejudices and stigmas are created," says Laureen. "I'm proud of myself and my parents, and I firmly believe that people are more than their CVs." We took a closer look....

What exactly are the goals of "Arbeiterkind.de" and what are the measures to achieve them?
As a group, we want to create a place where young people from non-academic families can express possible fears about studying or university itself, and where they don't have to hide their insecurities behind a poker face. It's about exchanging ideas and not feeling alone with their own questions and fears. We also want to use the experiences we have made ourselves and the hurdles we have overcome to encourage even more students to study. We are contact persons for all questions regarding applications for university places, study financing, scholarships and much more. We share our experiences simply and, above all, honestly. For example, if the group receives an enquiry from a first-year student who is interested in scholarships, we think about it in the group: Who has had experience in this area? Who can share this experience? Who has tips?

When did the group start at the University of Erfurt?
I personally joined the group in autumn 2019. At that time, it was in the process of re-forming after a long period of dormancy. At our meetings, we average five to seven members, but the group has more members, e.g. people who have moved away from Erfurt for family or work reasons, but who continue to support us with their experiences. Fortunately, since this semester we can also meet again in presence and not only on the screen - every second Thursday of the month at 6.30 pm at the "Kreativtankstelle" near campus.

Is this a closed circle or can people from academic families also join "Arbeiterkind.de"?
The group is open to everyone! Among those involved in the group are mainly students (and former students) of the "first generation", but not only. Anyone who wants to share their experiences from their studies and encourage others with their story can join. Every experience makes the group richer and helps those seeking advice. Even among the first-year students and pupils who contact us, there are not only first-generation students. Everyone has questions and concerns, even if the majority of our network are actually first-generation students. With the latter, the questions and the need to get together and exchange ideas are more frequent. And with them, it sometimes takes more courage to take this step.

How did you come to "Arbeiterkind.de" and why are you personally involved in the group?
I moved to Erfurt from rural East Westphalia and was quite quickly overwhelmed by the city. Everything at the university seemed so organised and all the other students already seemed to have a precise plan. That made me feel a bit insecure at first - after all, my family had no experience with studying as such. I was still in the process of finding out how the degree programme worked in general, and there were already discussions in my classes about ideas for upcoming internships and who to know in case the dream applications didn't work out. At that time, I didn't have any ideas myself and I wasn't so well networked that I would have had a contact person in case of an emergency. To be honest, in the first few weeks I often felt overwhelmed by all the new impressions. However, I already knew about the "Arbeiterkind" initiative before I moved to Erfurt. Back home, I had been involved in a conference on the topic of "Educational Opportunities in Rural Areas" and got to know the local "Arbeiterkind.de" group there. After my first weeks in Erfurt, I simply wanted to share my experiences and also hear whether I was alone with my worries or not. And I simply wanted to exchange "at eye level". Since then I have been a part of it...

From your point of view, what distinguishes "children" from non-academic families who are studying from people whose parents have studied themselves?
At first glance, not much. Students of the "first generation" can also have good or bad grades. They, too, can speak many or few languages. They too can be very enthusiastic about their studies or doubtful. In that respect, "we" are no different from any other student. I can't speak for all first-time graduates here (that's why our initiative thrives on everyone sharing their own educational story), but often the path to university is less predetermined and self-evident. Although I am very interested in politics, media and society, it was by no means clear to me from the beginning that I would study. Not even for those around me. Statistics show that children from academic households are still more likely to go to university, and that can hardly be due to their interests alone.

In addition, first-time academics usually have fewer (family) contacts in occupational fields for which a degree is necessary. This does not mean that students from academic families all have good contacts in the academic world - e.g. when it comes to internships or the like - but the probability is just significantly higher. The pressure for "first-time academics" is simply often higher and many are also afraid of it.

Now, studies have changed considerably over time - they are no longer comparable to those of our parents anyway. And yet it's still a bigger hurdle for non-academic families, would you say?
The hurdle is still there - unfortunately. The fact that a scientific term paper is written differently than a text at school has not changed. How one works scientifically has also hardly changed, and to see in one's own family environment where former students work simply gives one courage for one's own career - that hasn't changed either. And of course there are the obvious injustices: Academics usually earn more money. This influences family and social structures and makes it easier or more difficult to study and everything that goes with it.

In your opinion, what could politics do to fill or at least reduce the gap?
Specifically, I can think of internships: they are required in many areas - whether during studies or afterwards when starting a career. But usually the salary is so low that you can't "afford" such an internship without a corresponding financial background (e.g. through your family).  But without first work experience (preferably abroad), which one usually gains in internships, it becomes difficult to find a job. Especially during the Corona pandemic, it was and is difficult to find internships, and if you do, the salary is hardly enough to move to the internship location. Here, especially public and governmental institutions should be held accountable to give out internships fairly. For me, this means that enough places are available and interns are not perceived as a "burden". And what must also be made clear: Interns are not cheap labour, but the employees of tomorrow. Here, too, I see it as the politicians' duty to ensure fair pay.

I see a second chance in vocational guidance at school. This should be more individualised and comprehensive in order to remove obstacles. It is not enough to hear a lecture from the employment agency once a year. What is needed are continuous talks, counselling and visits from both companies and universities - as a compulsory programme and not exclusively on the initiative of a few motivated teachers.

How could the university contribute to this, do you have any ideas?
On the one hand, I would like to see problems and insecurities communicated more honestly and there to be a space where you can say that you are insecure or even overwhelmed. I have the impression that it is often assumed that you know and can do certain things as a first-year student - e.g. with regard to scientific work - but this is often not the case. "Learning by doing" may work for some students, but by no means for all, and everyone would benefit from good introductory events to working and living at the university. I would also like the universities to offer more advice and support on the topic of "career entry" or "internships". Especially in the humanities disciplines, there is no specific job "waiting" at the end of the degree. In order to nevertheless be able to embark on a fulfilling career path, there is clearly a need for more support and exchange. With our "Arbeiterkind.de" initiative, we are trying to promote and support this. I would like to have more comrades-in-arms at other levels as well.