University Alumni Groups in Germany

During English class, while reading the International Herald Tribune’s article End Bonuses for Bankers, my student and I both questioned the plural form of bonus.

We reviewed the common form of nouns ending with -us getting the plural form of -i, e.g. cactus (cacti), octopus (octopi), alumnus (alumni), and we both confirmed the German plural of Bonus as being Boni. From bonuses in English, we then proceeded to the German translation for alumnus, where I had to pass.

Strange, I thought. It sometimes happens that I can’t even remember a word in my own mother tongue, but this one went further. Was there a word for alumnus in German? If so, what significance did it carry in the world of German academia?

First, I consulted the online dictionary, Leo. The result was a lot of ehemalige (former) student, co-worker, school, college student and also graduate.

In most countries, alumnus stands for having attended the same university, but the meaning in German is a bit broader.

I then went on to search in German for alumni groups around Germany with two results coming up. There are 40 university student alumni groups in Germany (source: wikipedia), with many other old orders, about 900,  either of a religious, political or drinking fraternity kind.

The Allies, after WWII, prohibited student alumni groups due to their sometimes pro-Nazi position. This ban was lifted in West Germany in the late 1940s, but remained in East Germany. Studentenverbindungen (college student alumni groups) were often associated with revolt.

On bdvb (network for economics majors), I learned that the act of former university students setting up alumni group (without any political attachment) was reestablished in Germany in the late 1980s.

Quoting from their page:

Im angelsächsischem Raum sind “Alumni”-Organisationen seit fast 200 Jahren fester Bestandteil vieler Universitäten. In Deutschland etablieren sich Ehemaligen-Netzwerke seit Ende der 80er Jahre des vergangenen Jahrhunderts.

Absolventinnen und Absolventen haben so die Möglichkeit, die während des Studiums gewonnenen Kontakte zu Kommilitonen und zur Hochschule zu halten und auszubauen.

“In Anglo-Saxon countries, alumni groups have been an integral part of universities for almost 200 years. In Germany, alumni networks got set up in the late 80s of the previous century.

Graduates have the opportunity to keep and develop contacts to other alumni and their university.”

Networking is a fairly new idea to most university graduates. Why, you might wonder. In my opinion, attending university free of tuition charge leaves students without feeling any kind of commitment. A certain sense of entitlement to free education is prevalent and further contact has not been seen of much value to one’s career. Of course, students remain friends over the years, but since most universities are state-run, there really is no need for any alumni groups to help support the university.

My husband, on the other hand, gets frequent mail from his former university in the U.S. Most often it is asking for donations to help build something new on campus. Tell that to a German: Please give money to help finance your university facilities. This idea actually makes me smile as I ponder the reaction.

Another fact is the relaxed attitude of repaying student loans (BAföG). Two good friends of mine have never even attempted to repay the loan. One offered me the solution of how to get away with it – just never make your first payment. The mistake of making a first payment results in having to pay everything back. I was saddened to recognize this lack of dignity on her behalf. Then again, some Germans feel wholly entitled to most benefits.

A life of tuition free university education and the chance of defaulting your student loan leaves little room for appreciating your college education.



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