Tim Mollenhauer is the president of AEGEE-Aachen (Association des États Généraux des Étudiants de l’Europe), one of Europe’s biggest interdisciplinary student organisations, currently present in over 200 cities in 40 countries all over Europe. Since 2016, AEGEE-Aachen organises Orientation Week, a series of activities dedicated to international students, that imply both information and socializing.
Let us begin with what AEGEE-Aachen stands for. What is its history?
AEGEE-Aachen was founded 30 years ago striving for a borderless Europe. It was around that time when the Erasmus project was established. The name stands for “Association des États Généraux des Étudiants de l’Europe” – European Student’s Forum. Today our 165 members in Aachen are part of a big network of around 200 local groups in around 40 countries with more than 10000 members.
What made you run for president of this organization?
Having the opportunity to be the head of an organization that provides space for many many motivated young people to realize their ideas, dreams and visions to make Europe a better place was very inspiring for me. I love to be part of a team that has an immense drive to improve things in our society and in the way our organization works internally. This experience is just beautiful.
The Orientation Week at RWTH Aachen is probably one of the best organized I have ever seen or heard of. What inspired you to start this project and what does it entail? How is it different from similar approaches at other universities?
Thank you for this very nice compliment! Personally, when I went to study abroad back in 2014, the experience was, mildly said, not very welcoming. At least if you didn’t speak the local language to a certain degree of perfection. If you are a bit of a shy person you will feel lost very very quickly in this environment. When I came back to Aachen I thought to myself: “Damn, internationals who are coming to Aachen must have the best possible welcome experience. I just have to make this sure.”
The vision I had was a welcome experience that flows. There has to be someone who picks you up the very first moment you arrive and leads you to the point when you’re fully settled down. People must feel welcomed and safe from day 0 or even before.
Many great activities existed before, like the tutoring/mentoring program (now called HOMIE-Groups) and other social activities. The biggest challenge was to coordinate everything, to make the big picture happen. I gathered a great team and we created Orientation Week as you can find it now, as a big mix of a giant get-2-know-each-other, teambuilding and matching of the incoming international students with locals. Fun without pressure, that’s what we strive for.
I think that what makes us different is that our approach is very personal and passionate. International students are not numbers or customers for us, they’re friends – and I am convinced that they feel this atmosphere.
Was it difficult for you to turn your ideas in something real, palpable, that the others could enjoy too?
I think if you have a vision and you’re passionate about it, turning ideas into something real becomes your mission. Difficulty then just turns into further motivation. You will take every step needed to reach your goal. The hardest part then was trying to sleep the night before my first Orientation Week.
What kind of challenges did you come across in the process of making Orientation Week a reality?
If you want to organize an orientation week, there are several things you really have to put a lot of effort in. It’s careful planning, you shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, raising the necessary funds beforehand can be hard, too, if you start at zero. It’s a lot of coordination, meetings, talking to people. You have to be very structured but spontaneous at the same time. Starting early and not procrastinating is crucial. Especially the scheduling needs a lot of care and attention. You have to be creative and always ask yourself: “Would a participant love this?”. If you cannot answer this question with a definite yes, it’s not enough. There’s zero tolerance for boredom.
During the event you can be faced with big problems in a matter of minutes. Locations can cancel few hours before. Servers can crash. You always have to double or better triple check everything. It can be exhausting, but it’s worth it.
How did the administration and academic staff react to this innovative project? What were the main arguments you used in order to defend and promote the idea?
I did not really have to defend the idea as our relationship to the International Office of the RWTH is very healthy – and we are super thankful for it. It’s an easy equation: they trust us to do a good job and we appreciate their trust and try to do the job as good as possible. If we do a good job, they trust us more and we then can do a better job again. It just gets better and better, so I’m really looking forward to the future, especially because they always support us in every way possible. It’s a partnership at eye level, I like it. I want to take the chance now and send big love to everyone working there.
How do you feel students are responding to Orientation Week? Would you say the student social life in Aachen changed thanks to it?
I have the feeling that people really like it. We receive a lot of great feedback to what we do. Of course there is always something that can be improved, sometimes things are a bit chaotic. But maybe that’s also part of the charm and authenticity. But really, at the end of a long day of any orientation event, just walking around and looking into the smiling faces is an amazing feeling. I really think people value a lot what we do.
The social life in Aachen has changed to a certain degree, too. I think international students are more visible now compared to a few years back. I’m happy for this as I think it can be a refreshing experience for local students to get in touch with different cultures.
We could say that Aachen is special in the way that it has a lot of international and exchange students, which makes the Orientation Week all the more dynamic. Do you believe, however, that this kind of endeavour could also be assumed by less diverse (in terms of nationalities and cultures) universities, such as the ones in Romania?
This is a sure thing, a definite yes. On the one hand, if you look behind the curtain of nationality, you’ll see that all of us are humans in the first place, we all are made from the same ingredients and we share the same planet to live our lives. Orientation gets its energy also from the spirit of the people, not only from diversity.
On the other hand, it should be considered as a huge potential of growth for the less diverse universities. It works just like in relationships, the first impression counts. If your incoming students love Orientation, they’ll love to stay in your city. If they love it, they’ll recommend it, they’ll talk about. If they talk about it, the university gains reputation, which results in more incoming students and – in the best case – leads to an even better Orientation.
Apart from Orientation Week, what other kind of activities did you initiate in order to integrate and inform the students of Aachen?
There’s plenty of stuff our team established in the past years and decades. We have a task force who publishes a super nice booklet, the “Key to Aachen”, which provides Internationals with all the knowledge they need to know. It’s a very successful thing because it’s close to the everyday life. Erasmus Students want to know about the best gelato place? Let’s spend one semester testing and rating every single ice cream shop in the city – and publish the result in the Key to Aachen!
We also organize parties and social gatherings, culture nights and other fun events on a regular basis.
Last, but not least, are there new projects you are currently working on? What can the students expect from AEGEE-Aachen in the future?
Our Erasmus Executive, Jan, just started to organize a brand new bi-weekly meeting, the so called “Social Talk”. He gathers with internationals and talks with them in an open discussion about everyday communication. I’m very excited about this as we haven’t really seen this concept before. Also, a lot of activities will be created by the locals who took part in Orientation. Besides that, our team is working on all our other projects, like our yearly summer university / German course. It’s for sure worth it following us on Facebook, to stay tuned!