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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.

DEGIS Events

2023 International Students in Germany Summit

by Sohila Ahmed

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a truly inspiring and uplifting networking event, specifically designed for international students. The International Students in Germany Summit (ISGS) was held in the bustling city of Berlin from the 16th to the 18th of July 2023, where I got to meet other international students from all over Germany, all of us sharing the same struggles, regardless of our diverse backgrounds. Throughout the three-day event, I got to hear personal accounts from international professionals, was moved by their challenges, and was in awe of their success. Furthermore, I participated in multiple workshops designed to enhance the lives of international students in Germany.

I personally had not heard of either DEGIS or the ISG Summit before this event, but spoilers I was pleasantly surprised! In this post, I would like to share with you a little more detail about what went on at the summit.

Day 1:

I was super excited to see what the German Association for International Students (DEGIS) had planned for us at the ISG. We were advised to store our bags at the venue, so we can all leave to our respective hostels at the end of the day. I guess it’s not too late to mention that accommodation was included in the ticket price for those not living in Berlin. After enjoying a cup of coffee and getting to know some of the other students, it was time to meet our humble and unique host of the event, Liam Carpenter

At 14.00, we had our first keynote speaker Mikalai Vincheuski, who gave us a brief insight into his journey and the forthcoming opportunities for international students.

Afterward, all 100 of us were divided into groups for a workshop about “The International Student Dream Journey”, where we had to decide what we believe is the optimum scenario for an international student coming to Germany.

At around 16.30 we had our second guest speaker, entrepreneur Ana Alvarez, who shared with us personal stories about the challenges she overcame coming here and gave us some pointers to help us overcome some of our challenges; the highlight was that I got to know about the community and the various opportunities offered by Migrapreneur.

DEGIS Team & Day 1 Speakers

After an exhausting first day, we got our room keys and started heading to our hostels; tired but looking forward to the next day.

Day 2:

After Liam introduced the agenda of the day, the team from DEGIS also prepared a small yet very interesting fair, where representatives from different organizations targeting internationals were present and ready to educate us about the various opportunities they offer. I personally wish there had been more companies, but maybe there will be in the coming years when the summit is even bigger!

After lunch, we enjoyed listening to our guest speaker, Jonathan Becker, and at 14.30 we started the next phase of our workshop from day 1. During the workshop, as a team, we had to come up with a solution to help make the “student dream journey” a reality. However, the challenge was that after coming up with the solution, we had to find a way to present it as a team on the 3rd day of the summit, while competing against all other teams. It was even harder to let go of a heated brainstorming session to join the rest of the delegates for our last keynote speaker of the day, Ximena Docarmo, who spoke about her journey into politics and how international students interested in politics can follow a similar path.

At the end of a long day, I couldn’t wait to explore Berlin with whom I can proudly call my new friends, thanks to the ISG Summit. 

Day 3:

The atmosphere was a bit tense on the 3rd and last day of the event. Everyone was rushing to finish their presentations, adding the final touches here and there, and in my case, discovering that the presentation couldn’t be downloaded a few minutes before the submission deadline. Fortunately, the DEGIS team was sweet enough to let one of our team members use her personal laptop for the presentation.

Furthermore, we had our last keynote speaker for the event, Thamires Herzing, a business development and founding member at Match Talent, who was also one of the judges of the workshop’s final presentation. After lunch, the winning team was announced, and so concluded the ISG Summit 2023.

The ISG summit was simply incredible. The energy, the people, and Berlin, of course, everything came together to create this vibrant atmosphere full of love, motivation, and support over a 3 day weekend that I will always remember fondly. I got to meet people I probably never would have been so lucky to meet otherwise (in lesser words, Liam), and made new friendships that felt more like meeting old friends after a long time.

In the end, I would like to thank the very welcoming community of DEGIS and can only say the ISG Summit is well worth it for any international student who might feel like they don’t belong or is feeling overwhelmed with life in Germany and in need of a glimmer of hope to keep going.

Sohila Ahmed is from Egypt. In Germany, she received her Master’s degree in International Management, Marketing & Entrepreneurship from Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg. 

DEGIS Events

2022 International Students in Germany Summit

by Carolina Figueiredo

On the weekend of July 1st to 3rd, 2022, in Berlin, we at DEGIS had the mission of delivering our first full in-person conference: the International Students in Germany Summit. We dreamed of a space where international students living all over the country could meet, connect and build a better future for this community – and this dream for sure became a reality! 

We started by meeting our first joiners on Friday, July 1st, at a chilled dinner at a pizza place. We had the opportunity to eat together, while we got to know each other and raise our expectations for what was to come!

On July 2nd, our summit was on! We welcomed our delegates at the event venue in the heart of Berlin for a day of pure energy and good vibes, with diverse individuals connecting and thinking together on solutions for our struggles and challenges when coming to Germany to pursue an education, in a very hands-on project space. 

Beyond these networking spaces, we had the pleasure to offer practical workshops, in which the delegates could reflect and put into action important skills for a successful path. Mika, our DEGIS National President, facilitated a space in which our international students could envision what they wanted to become and how to get there. Mika also gathered with DEGIS Freising President, Raj, to share their experiences when pursuing a career in Germany as foreigners, proposing exercises of planning and role-playing to prepare our delegates for job applications and interviews. 

I had the opportunity to also facilitate a workshop, as DEGIS Head of Marketing, highlighting how international students can use social media to tell their stories, help others, and even access opportunities. We wrapped up by producing very cool Reels with tips to make international students’ lives better, which you can check out on our Instagram (@degisnetwork). 

It was a magical day, in which we had our small but committed National Team – Mika, Jenny, Aarushi, Jonathan, and I – invested in delivering the best experience possible to international students that joined us, with connection spaces, partners sponsoring us with awesome products (thanks Roy Kombucha, Disco-Limo, and Studo) and real-life solutions!

We had 20 awesome delegates coming from Berlin, Halle, Leipzig, Freising, Potsdam, Fulda and Göttingen, representing 12 different countries! How cool is that? This weekend was nicely closed by a Barbecue Party at the iconic Mauerpark, a place where Berliners gather every Sunday to be with friends, enjoy cultural activities, and have fun. It comes without saying that we had a blast! 

I’m mostly thankful for all those who took part in this and we can’t wait to see you all again. But if you are reading this and couldn’t join us this time – stay tuned. It was just the first and for sure not the last of our DEGIS gatherings!

Carolina Figueiredo (she/her) is the former Head of Marketing and current General Coordinator at DEGIS.