© Credit: University of Bremen
© Credit: Work Group /University of Bremen
© Credit: Work Group / University of Bremen
“We see counseling as one of our most important tasks”, says Helena Hamacher, one of the eight current members of the group. The people in the Family Service Office on the campus boulevard are happy to give advice to anyone who has problems combining university studies with family life. There’s absolutely no red tape involved so it’s very often the first port of call. “As we’re also students with similar problems it’s not so difficult to find the courage to talk to us”, Helena explains. The work group offers students advice on topics like child care, student finances, absence from studies during periods of parental leave, difficulty in keeping up regular attendance in lecture courses, and similar. “We have no official standing”, she’s quick to point out, “but we can tell students seeking advice who the right people to approach are, and we can put their case to the university management and the faculties. Everything is kept strictly confidential, of course.” It’s fortunate that the student self-help group is structurally embedded in the University’s Office for Equal Opportunity led by Bettina Schweizer. “She’s responsible for the Family-friendly University audit, and that’s a real bonus for us.” Within the context of the audit, it’s possible to negotiate target agreements with a three-year term and there are checks to see that they are implemented; otherwise the University will lose the title. This makes a big difference.
But there still remain a lot of tricky issues. A case in point: It is mandatory for students in the Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies to spend a semester abroad during their studies. But how can a young mother without a partner do that? How can she organize child-care in another country, and who should pay for it? “Happily, we now have a new set of examination regulations that at least in theory provide for an alternative to spending time abroad”, says Helena Hamacher. What counts as an alternative, though? It remains to be seen whether the new regulations will actually improve the situation for students. “We fear this chapter has not yet been closed and problems are still likely to arise.” Helena Hachmacher goes on to illustrate another difficulty students with children recently had to face: The week-long strike of workers in day care centers, which presented parents with enormous challenges in 2015. “In the event of a strike like that or a frequently ill child, how can students possibly manage to keep up the 80 percent attendance required in some courses?” Such situations often lead to friction between students and their teachers. “What we would like to see in this respect is a general understanding and sympathy for students bringing up children, together with an open attitude and willingness to be supportive”, she says. In summer semester 2015, the work group in the Family Service Office dealt with 24 cases. Interestingly, only three on the part of men, i.e. fathers.
“It’s a never-ending struggle”, says Helena Hamacher, not the least bit disheartened. She’s an undergraduate student of Public Health and Sports Science, and herself has a three-year-old son. “Quite often the problems involve a great deal of emotional and administrative effort.” The members of the work group see themselves as advocates for their clients. “It’s up to us to negotiate with the bodies concerned”, she says. Students are of course at the lowest level of the university hierarchy. Nevertheless, as representatives of fellow students they manage to make their mark. “In the University’s large Family-friendly Work Group we sit together with the Vice Rector, the Director of Finances and Administration, women’s representatives, people from the Center for Teacher Training and the Student Services Office, and we are able to make our voice heard.”
Children events and toys
Broadly speaking, in the two and a half years since the work group was formed there has been a further improvement in the family-friendly atmosphere on campus. “In some of the faculties, the deans have issued very favorable recommendations”, says Helena Hamacher. And the fact that the faculties ask the group to present their work during the orientation week for freshers can be seen as a further success. The children get-togethers in June are well attended. And now there are toys and games available in all the counseling offices – including the Office for Student Affairs, Praxisbüros, and the Student Advisory Service.
“An important part of my life”
Why do Helena Hamacher and her fellow student helpers invest their time and effort in such voluntary work alongside their studies? In her own words: “I’m able to learn things not covered in the curriculum. The work has become an important part of my life. And as a student I would otherwise probably never have any opportunity to sit down at the same table as the Vice Rector.” The others share her view.