From Community Member to President: My Fun Ride as DEGIS City Chapter President in Düsseldorf

Hi, I am Darshan Hirapara, president of DEGIS Düsseldorf. Becoming the president of DEGIS in Düsseldorf wasn’t just a volunteer role with responsibilities; it was a whole adventure packed with lessons, friendships, and some pretty cool moments. Here’s the scoop on what I learned from being the a president and how it’s changed me:

Finding Magic in Teamwork and Being a Good Leader

Initially, I joined the community through a buddy program, but soon found myself leading our DEGIS Düsseldorf chapter. This transition was about building relationships, assuming leadership responsibilities, and advancing impactful programs, such as the buddy system and event coordination, to make international students feel welcomed in Germany. This experience underscored the value of mutual support and the significance of being a responsive and empathetic leader.

Mixing Hard Work with Clever Planning

Taking the lead required a combination of hard work and strategic foresight. Given our commitments as students, time management was crucial. I learned to anticipate future needs, which enabled us to engage in memorable activities, from exploring Christmas markets to participating in the Düsseldorf carnival with over 50 community members. This journey taught me how to effectively manage volunteer efforts and ensure our initiatives were meaningful and lasting.

Growing Up by Giving Back

Contributing to DEGIS was a significant aspect of my personal development in Germany. It cultivated resilience, facilitated networking opportunities that benefitted my career, and helped balance academic and work commitments. I also had the chance to assist others in finding employment and understanding German regulations, which was incredibly fulfilling.

Making Friends and Fighting Homesickness

Volunteering was particularly valuable for combating feelings of isolation in a new country. DEGIS enabled me to forge lasting friendships and establish a sense of belonging within the international student community. These relationships not only supported my professional growth but also made Germany feel more like home.

The Joy of Helping Others

Leading DEGIS in Düsseldorf allowed me to positively impact the lives of international students. My focus was on ensuring they felt supported, integrated, and part of a community while far from home. This role provided a profound sense of purpose and highlighted the joy derived from assisting others.

Reflecting on my journey with DEGIS, I’ve learned the importance of teamwork, vision, and the fulfilment that comes from helping others. Volunteering has indeed been a life-changing experience, enriching not just the lives of others but my own as well. 

If you’re in Düsseldorf and interested in becoming a part of our community, make sure to follow our Instagram channel at @degis_duesseldorf.

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Interview with DEGIS Co-Founder Alex

by Carolina Figueiredo

In this interview with Alex Ruthemeier, the DEGIS co-founder shares his inspiration to start the non-profit organization, its desired impact and the aspirations for the future. 

Can you share what inspired you and the other co-founders of Expatrio to start DEGIS in 2019?

Alex: We are all Germans, but see ourselves as global citizens who have a genuine interest in getting to know other realities and cultures. All of us had very intense and life-changing experiences abroad, which opened our minds to how relevant this cultural exchange is, not only to the individuals who go through them but also to the society that receives and integrates them. This process of integration it’s perhaps one of the biggest challenges for international students, especially considering the level of complexity of the bureaucracy and the scarcity of centralized information for them to adapt and thrive.

So, first, we idealized Expatrio as a one-stop shop for the needed products and services of international students. While building Expatrio, we missed something overarching and social, that would not only enhance the experiences of the Expatrio customers but of every international student who steps into Germany. We were missing community and this sense of belonging, and that’s why we separately dreamed of establishing an association for international students: DEGIS.    

DEGIS stands for “German Association for International Students.” Could you share more about the mission and vision of the organization, and why international students in Germany should join this community?

Alex: We had a sound understanding that the biggest pain for international students in Germany was loneliness, but after we conducted a survey in 2021 we learned that our assumption was, actually, accurate. We could clearly see this during the pandemic, of course, but in general, coming to a new culture can be overwhelming when you don’t have a support system! 

Moved by that and also by the insight of not observing so far any active community that carried the proposal of promoting a broad, diverse and inclusive support for international students, we designed what would be DEGIS. We exist to support every international student to achieve their dreams and goals. These dreams and goals can be about their career, new friends, building a business from scratch…whatever. We want them to believe they can do that. 

Our ambition is to become the largest community for international students in Germany, with City Chapters organizing events in every University City of the country, a strong network of volunteers (of course with globally driven Germans included), besides an impactful and diverse community.

Many international students struggle with adapting to a new culture and making connections in Germany. How does DEGIS help foster sense of community and belonging among international students?

Alex: Besides having an organizational set-up, we want to rely mostly on the power of peer-to-peer support. We identify each other as international students by the struggles we face, of course, but also for the goals we share and how much we can enjoy this journey together. 

The sense of belonging also comes with the realization of how cool it is to have a great time with people you wouldn’t meet anywhere else, coming from different cultures, experiences, and backgrounds. 

In the time since DEGIS was founded, what are, in your opinion, some of the most impactful initiatives or projects that have been undertaken to support international students in Germany?

Alex: In June 2023, we got to organize our largest offline event ever, the ISG Summit. We gathered 100 international students from 20+ nationalities, studying in different cities in Germany, and having a blast! Besides all the fun, we got to put their minds to think together not only about struggles but mostly about solutions, all that nurtured by cool guest speakers. I can’t wait for the next edition!

But I feel, more than anything, our everyday work is the most impactful one. Being there, where the students actually are, and counting on amazing volunteers to welcome them, is the best we can do as a community-centered organization.

What do you think is the role of international students in fostering cultural and economic development in Germany?

Alex: Germany’s historical identity as an immigration society sets the stage for a continued influx of newcomers, a trend projected to intensify due to the country’s growing need for skilled labor and demographic shifts. One key demographic contributing significantly to Germany’s future workforce is international students, who are poised to play a crucial role in the nation’s labor market. Not only are these students well-trained, but they have also taken significant strides in integrating into German culture and society. Recent research indicates that a noteworthy percentage of international students plan to extend their stay beyond a specified period, demonstrating a desire for long-term engagement and contribution (Source: DESTATIS).

As Germany embraces a future with an increasing reliance on international talent, initiatives like DEGIS are crucial. DEGIS, serving as an accompanying buddy system, aims to create a conducive environment for encounters, personal growth, and enjoyment. This initiative recognizes the significance of fostering connections between diverse individuals, acknowledging that these connections can lead to a more vibrant and productive society. By nurturing a sense of community through initiatives like DEGIS, Germany can harness the potential of its diverse population and create a thriving environment that benefits both newcomers and the broader society.

In this context, the importance of migrant student founders cannot be overstated, as highlighted by the Migrant Founders Monitor 2023. These individuals contribute not only to the economic landscape but also bring innovative perspectives, enriching the entrepreneurial ecosystem. As Germany positions itself as a hub for global talent, initiatives like DEGIS, combined with the entrepreneurial spirit of migrant student founders, are poised to shape a dynamic and inclusive future for the nation.

Can you provide some tips or advice for international students who are just starting their journey in Germany and may feel overwhelmed?

Alex: Join DEGIS! But seriously, we know how challenging it can be, and being alone just makes it worse. So finding a support system of like-minded people makes all the difference when we want to ease our struggles and find ways of integrating. 

You can join whatever you like, from a group of people coming from your own country to sports classes, meditation groups…but if you would like to experience an environment where you will be both welcomed and challenged to innovate, DEGIS is here for you. Oh, and we also have tons of fun together!

Looking ahead, how do you see the DEGIS community in the future? What can be reached and achieved?

Alex: DEGIS has some cool plans for the future. First off, we want every international student to join us actively. We’re all about building a community vibe, with mentorship programs, cultural bashes, and support any dream and goal of our members.

But that’s not all – DEGIS is thinking big! We want to set up a Chapter in every city, creating local hangouts for international students. These city chapters will be like chill spots, offering support, organizing awesome events, and just being there for students in different regions. It’s all about making DEGIS feel like a home away from home, no matter where you are in Germany. We want to keep planning regular get-togethers, both local and nationwide, where international students can mix and mingle. DEGIS wants to bridge the gap between students and the rest of Germany, making sure everyone’s on the same wavelength.

DEGIS co-founder Alex Ruthemeier

Oh, and DEGIS isn’t just about the good times; we’ve got serious goals too. We want to be the voice of international students, making sure their opinions count. Plus, we’re all about making Germany a long-term home for international students. We’re cooking up plans to help students blend into the local scene, and maybe even start their own businesses. Who knows, maybe the next big startup will be born out of DEGIS! It’s all about making the international student experience in Germany not just successful but also a whole lot of fun.

Alex’s journey began with a work abroad program in Singapore, which ignited his passion for promoting entrepreneurship and facilitating migration. He co-founded Expatrio and subsequently DEGIS. Today, he serves as DEGIS Managing Director, steering the organization toward its goals.

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Learn from My Mistakes

by Tonya

Nobody likes to make mistakes. Especially not when you have just moved to a new country and started university. The language barrier, culture shock, bureaucracy… And I’m just a girl in her early 20s!

That’s what I thought to myself when I came to Germany a year ago. Now I’m in my second year of studies and have finally made at least some sense of how life in Germany works. So it’s time I share some of my findings and hopefully make the lives of some of you a bit easier!

Here are 5 mistakes I have made as an international student in Germany:

Mistake 1: Overestimating my German

Even though I did already have B1 once I came to Germany, I still wish I would have taken a German speaker with me to open a bank account and help me with city registration. You can never be too cautious about understanding all the details when it comes to something so important.

Mistake 2: Not Signing Up for a Buddy Program

Most universities have “Buddy Program”, which I unfortunately didn’t take seriously. A buddy is a person who has been studying at your university for quite some time and who volunteered to help newcomers, like you and I, get accustomed to the campus, the city, and even the country itself. So don’t miss out on this opportunity to have an experienced person to show you around.

Mistake 3: Overpaying for Groceries

I wish I had someone explain to me how big of a difference shops can make when it comes to the prices for the same items. I used to shop at Rewe, since it was the closest to where I live, but how big was my surprise when I saw the prices at Aldi and then Netto! My advice is, check different stores and their price-variety-quality combo before setting your heart on one store.

Mistake 4: Not Paying Radio Tax

Apparently, in Germany, you have to pay Rundfunkbeitrag whether you use German radio and TV or not. This is pretty complicated, but I was lucky I live in the dormitory, and we can divide the cost between multiple people since we share the same address.

Mistake 5: Overestimating my Independence

I am the kind of person, who always thinks they are the strongest and life changes don’t affect them that much. But only now, a year into my journey, have I started to realize just how big of a change moving abroad and being completely on your own is. A reminder for every overachiever out there, it is ok to need some time off for yourself. It is ok to need emotional support. By the way, some universities provide psychological help to students for free, so check that out! And that is why communities like DEGIS can be a way to help. You can connect with other internationals who experience the same struggles as you do, which leaves you feeling less alone.

I am sure that in a year from now, I will have more mistakes I am currently making! But for now, I really hope this list helps. I talk more about my experiences studying in Germany on my socials, so feel free to follow and learn with me.

Tonya is an international student and influencer from Belarus. She moved to Germany to pursue a higher education, the experience of which she talks about on her Instagram channel @gravity_tonya