Lunch at Uni

There is one canteen at the University of Mannheim, the Mensa. They serve lunch every week day from 11.30 to around 14 o’clock. There are two different menu choices featuring meat and one vegetarian option, salad buffet, grill and wok meals as well as schnitzel to choose from. The meals cost between 3 and 4 euros. It is possible to form a meal from the small 0,90€ side dishes of potato, vegetables and salad combined to for example the schnitzel (2,20€ with one side dish). Drinks are not included in the price, and as they only sell bottled drinks, most of the students take their own drinks with them. As payment methods, only (pre-loaded) student card and cash are accepted.

The apportioned meals are generous in size. In my experience, asking for a smaller portion does not affect the portion size at all. This is a shame since I don’t like to throw food away, but often cannot finish the entire meal. The issue is aggravated by the ratio of pasta or potatoes to the other ingredients on the plate – let’s just say that it’s more than the recommended one third of the meal. What comes to the quality of the food, the small sweet or salty soups are delicious but otherwise, the food is less tasty than what they serve at Aalto Uni.

I find the food at Cafe EO a bit better quality. Besides coffee, bagels, sandwiches, cakes, muffins and fruit, they have a pay-what-you-eat lunch buffet (10€/kg). However, the selection there does not seem vary that much, which is why I’m happy to cook for myself at home most of the time. Eating out is more affordable in Mannheim than in Helsinki, so I imagine many students taking advantage of the lunch prices in the various restaurants.

To conclude, the food at Mensa is decent. In a busy day of lectures back to back, I would eat either there or at Cafe EO. But if I had more time at hand, I’d rather cook myself.

Studies in Uni Mannheim – my courses

To get studies abroad included in the master’s degree, Aalto University expects the exchange students to take courses worth of 24 ETC:s. I mentioned earlier that I chose Uni Mannheim partly because of their course selection. Here, I try to touch on everything related to the courses, from registration to grade composition.

Uni Mannheim provides courses in the faculties of business administration, social sciences, humanities, economics, law as well as business informatics and mathematics. Not all of the courses welcome exchange students: for example, some core modules are restricted to program students only. Another catch is that you have to select half of the courses from the department you were admitted in (business administration in my case). Any deviation from this will have to be approved separately, as I did, because I was not sure how the Summer Academy would affect the calculations. I was allowed to take two business administration courses and two economics courses in addition to the the language course.

There are three types of courses: lectures with or without exercise sessions, seminars and intensive seminars. Seminars are supposed to be more interactive and participatory than the more traditional “lecturer teaches” lectures. Intensive seminars are courses completed in only a few but long days. The fourth type of courses would be language courses, but they are organised by a distinct body, so they have their own protocols.

I actually ended up with all the courses I had written down to my learning agreement before the final course selection even was available. This is not self-evident since there are a limited number of seats in some of the courses, and the admission depends on the priority you have given the course in the registration form as well as other features (study program, progress in studies, prerequisites…) that the algorithm takes into account when allocating the seats. As an exchange student, I could not register for master’s economics seminars but had to send emails instead. Then again, there were mass lectures that did not require registration at all. In this jungle, I managed to secure my seat in Behavioural perspectives on e-business, Digital marketing strategy, Experimental public choice and History of modern economicsAll these courses are taught in English. I stressed most about getting to the economics seminars, but there are so few students doing their master’s degree in economics in Uni Mannheim that I probably worried for nothing. 

Another special quirk in the course system here is that the course registration does not include exam registration. While some of the courses do not require registration at all, one has to register to the exams even on the courses without an exam. A course is graded only if this second registration is done.

Finally to the courses I selected.

Behavioural perspectives on e-business, 4 ETC

This lecture organised by the department of Information systems examines the adoption and use of technologies and human behaviour related to e-businesses. The lectures are traditional in that apart from occasional in-class group exercises and somewhat fruitless attempts to engage students in discussion, the lecturer mostly reads through his slides. There is one 90-minute class a week. Since the slides are comprehensive and the lectures do not provide that much added value, I have not felt remorse in skipping quite a few classes. The course will be fully graded based on a 60-minute written exam.

Digital marketing strategy, 4 ETC

This marketing course is also classified as a lecture, but is far more interactive than the former. A big part of the course is going through case studies in groups and presenting particular questions allocated to the groups in front of the class. In the beginning of the lectures, there are often mobile quizzes about the content of the previous lecture. Participation is encouraged by giving chocolate for answering questions. There are also a couple of guest lecturers to spice up the classes. As before, the classes are 90 minutes once a week, but these ones should not be skipped, since not all of the important discussion is written down to the slides. 40% of the grade comes from the case pitch and 60% from a 60-minute written exam. A special feature of the course is that the compulsory case material costs 10 euros (because of license fees).

Experimental public choice, 5 ETC

Experimental public choice is a small scale economics seminar that has very few attendees, very few meetings and a lot of independent work. Basically, the 10 or so attendees are allocated each a topic in the area of political behaviour and experimental economics. There are four tasks that compose the final grade: writing summaries of two assigned papers, conducting independent research and writing a 10-page literature review based on that, presenting one of the papers to the class and finally, preparing questions of one other student’s paper and participating to the discussion. Needless to say, attendance on the few meetings is compulsory.

History of modern economics, 5 ETC

This economics seminar is similar to the previous one, but the topic is different. Students participating to the seminar prepare a 30-minute presentation and write a 10-page term paper of an economics Nobel laureate. Once again, the presentation, discussion activity and the term paper form the final grade, and attendance is compulsory.

Summer Academy, 6 ETC

Summer Academy is an intensive language and culture course that takes place in August, before the start of the other courses (and a Winter Academy in January, respectively). I discuss the pros and cons of the pricey course in an earlier blog post.

I am quite pleased with the selection and amount of courses I took. It leaves me with time to travel and procrastinate over my master’s thesis. What I should have done differently is to take a language course on top of the Summer Academy, although I wouldn’t get the credits for it. Unless actively taking initiative, which I do not, the progress in learning the local language quickly comes to a halt.

Moving around in (and from) Mannheim

One of the nice things about Mannheim is that the connections inside and to and from the city are good. What about a trip to Heidelberg? 20 minutes by local train. Paris? Three hours by train. Strasbourg? Two hours in a car. Frankfurt? Half an hour by train or an hour by bus. Berlin? From Frankfurt, a 1,5-hour flight. Many things can be said about the punctuality of Deutsche Bahn or Flixbus, but the local public transport VRN runs mostly on time. 

In Quadrat, the city center, everything is within a walking distance. You get your daily steps and have a chance to come across a new restaurant. To make it interesting, there are signs telling about the history of the buildings and people who lived and worked in Mannheim sprinkled all over the city.

Cycling is quite popular in Mannheim. It is a quick (and fit) way to get around if you live just outside the city center. Mannheim has a good amount of city bikes (“Nextbike”) scattered in key locations at an affordable price for the first half an hour. Bikers are generally well considered in the road network, the separate bike lanes are extensive and clearly marked.

For public transport, there are several options. For short distances, trams are convenient. Less traffic lights, no getting stuck in the rush hour traffic jam. In my experience, the trams are generally in time. My line runs through the night, but that is not the case for all of them. If there is no tram line available, there will be buses. And for commuting to further away, S-Bahn, the local train, might be the fastest option. If you are going to use public transport every day, I’d highly recommend buying the Rhein-Neckar area semester ticket that costs 170 euros. It ends up being so much cheaper than buying single tickets for 2,60 euros. And if you stay for two semester, you can get the semester ticker for free!

Some technical notes:

  • Download the VRN app (or similar). Timetables, nearest stops, transport options, even alarms to step off always on hand. No chance of getting lost in an unfamiliar city.
  • Trams and buses have signs telling the name of the next stop, which helps keeping track on when to get off.
  • Tram tickets have to be bought before stepping in. Most of the stops have a ticket machine that accepts both cash and card payments. Inside the tram, the ticket has to be validated by sticking it in another machine. If you have a semester ticket, it only has to be shown by request. Ticket inspectors are seen rarely, but they definitely do exist.
  • The semester ticket can be bought on the ecUM student card so that you only have to carry one card around.
  • With the semester ticket, you are entitled to ride all the buses, trams and S-Bahns inside the Rhein-Neckar area which covers much more than only the city of Mannheim.

For trips outside the VRN area, a new ticket has to be bought. You might want to check which is cheaper, buying one ticket for the entire trip or only for the part that is not covered by the local ticket. For longer trips, the faster and more expensive ICE-trains are the most comfortable choice. Because of the salty prices, I often turned to Flixbus which costs only a fraction of the train tickets but correspondingly also takes a longer time to reach the destination. I found out that it was actually way cheaper to fly from Frankfurt to Berlin than to take the train, which is a shame from environmental perspective.

+ Mannheim has its own airport, but judging on the prices, it is targeted to rich and busy business people. Frankfurt airport(s) are close by and offer a wider and a more affordable selection for more price sensitive travelers.

 

Home abroad – living and finding an apartment in Mannheim

In an earlier blog post, I already wrote a few lines about my experience of finding a flat here in Mannheim. In a nutshell, there are only so many dorm rooms available. It has been almost a month since the semester started, but not everyone seem to have found accommodation yet. For the sake of peace of mind, it is worth being early with the apartment hunt. There are several websites to keep an eye on, for example the portal for students of UniMa and Studenten-WG.de. Unfortunately, I have heard of a few scams during my stay in here, so I would advice to start with the UniMa portail and to be mindful about to whom and when to send money.

Studierendenwerk Mannheim is responsible for the dorms which are scattered all over Mannheim. Most of the flats are shared with one or several people (WG), but to my knowledge, there are also some studios available. The condition of the flats varies, although the most usual problem residents seem to have is related to locking oneself out of the flat. Most of the rooms are rented furnished, as was mine. I still managed to spend surprisingly high amount to home decor, wooops.

The rent is quite similar everywhere, on average between 250 to 350 euros a month for a room. The living space and the number of flat mates might vary considerably, and there are also some budget finds of closer to 200 euros per month to be snatched.

My flat is located in Neckarau, a 10-minute tram journey away from the city center and the Uni. The tram drives by every 10 minutes during the day and once in an hour in the night. Neckarau is a peaceful neighbourhood, it is easy to feel safe in here. The streets are narrow and lined with colourful houses. The Neckar river, flood dam area, a strip of forest, tennis and football courts and something I believe to be a community garden with some horses, chickens and other animals are to be found only a few blocks away. It is the perfect location to go jogging or for a walk.

From my flat, it takes only five minutes by foot to reach two food stores. If the walking time is increased to 10 minutes, the number increases to four. There are a few pubs, not noisy and disturbing at all, and some pizza and döner places. Several bakeries and a variety of other stores are clustered in the center of Neckarau. Two churches chime one after another on Sundays.

If one is into clubbing and nightlife, the optimal flat location would probably be Jungbush or the Quadrat. If one wants to be close to the nature and yet within a short commute to the centre, I’d recommend Neckarau. In any case, it is easy to move around with trams, buses and bikes all over Mannheim. And if your flatmate is as nice as mine, there won’t be any additional trouble of having a “private” contract instead of a university dorm.

Finally, some practical aspects about living here.

  • Tap water is drinkable although contains a lot of  limestone, which is why many people filter the water before use. I got used to the taste quite soon. Mannheimers seem to be fond of carbonated water, hardly a day goes by without seeing someone with a six-pack of 2 liter bottles of carbonated water.
  • Houses do not have climate control as a default. Especially people from hotter climate were surprised coming to the +35 degrees Celsius summer weather and not being able to seek shelter inside.
  • Likewise, at least in my flat the floors get cold already in +15 degrees. My flatmate changes his shoes to slippers when coming home, which I properly understand only now when the temperature drops. A good thing I brought woolen socks with me.

 

Thoughts about the International Summer Academy 2018

international summer academy 2018 mannheim

International Summer Academy (ISA), a month long intensive language and culture course held in August before the start of the other courses. 6 ETC:s in exchange for 605 euros. Was it worth it?

The obvious pros related to any language course like ISA are that you get to spend an additional month abroad. Since the course takes place before the start of the semester, you are already familiar with the city by then. It is also a great opportunity to make some new friends, and if you choose well, they might stay with you the whole semester. Furthermore, since you already earn 6 ETC before the semester starts, you have to take less courses later. Less stress, more time to travel.

ISA was nicely organized. The compulsory teaching hours were Monday to Friday from 9 to 13.15, but there were additional classes up to 18 o’clock almost daily. If you felt like practicing grammar, writing or speaking, there were plenty of opportunities. They provided additional history and German economy lectures which were worth attending to, given that your language skills were good enough. But if you had plans or were tired, you didn’t have to study any longer than to 13.15, when the compulsory class was over.

Before the start of the academy, we took a placement test online and were assigned to groups based on that, but could switch classes in the beginning. This way, the contents of the course were matched to our skill level. Group sizes were small, restricted to maybe 15 persons, which meant that everybody could – and had to – participate in the discussion. Every group had two teachers, each teaching us a couple of days in the week, but more time was spent with one of them. My teachers differed by their personalities and teaching methods, but both were nice. Overall, the quality of teaching was very good on all of the classes I attended to.

At least at my level (A2.2), the amount of homework was modest. We had assignments from the text book, a couple of longer writing assignments (still 100 words at the most) and one five minute presentation to prepare. We had two exams, one in the middle of the course, and then a bigger exam in the end that consisted of listening and reading comprehension as well as grammar and writing assignments.

Maybe the best part of ISA was that we got many opportunities to attend to all kinds of day trips during the month. Hiking, city tours, a trip to the local beach… I would not have thought to travel to all of the places on my own, especially to locations a few hours away.

The biggest negative side in ISA was that we had to pay extra for almost everything: accommodation and food, but also for the day trips (although they were very affordable). Besides teaching, text book was one of the few things included in the price.

When I planned my exchange, I may have had a limit of 500 euros for the language course. When the price point turned out to be higher, I still took the deal. Would I do it again? Yes. But I might check the alternatives provided by other universities – paying less for the course and staying a longer time in not one, but two different places is worth considering.

Why Mannheim?

It has been almost five weeks since I arrived here in Mannheim. It is strange to think that I might be at home somewhere else right now – Mannheim was not my first choice from the beginning.

The process of deciding where to study for a semester started by choosing the language of the destination. I wanted to get to practice and develop my newly founded German skills, so the area needed to be German speaking. Switzerland was a serious candidate for a long time, but in the end, I decided to go with a more affordable option. The exact location was not of importance to me.

Aalto BIZ has a variety of partnering universities in Germany, but not that many with an economics department. Several schools of management were eliminated right away. The list of candidates was further reduced by conflicting schedules. Most of the universities in Germany have winter and summer semesters in contrast to our fall and spring semesters. Considering my study plan before and after the exchange, it was practical to pick a destination with a similar schedule.

In the end, I chose between Köln (Cologne) and Mannheim. Köln would have been a bigger and maybe a more interesting city, but the top rating of the University of Mannheim as well as the course selection made me choose Mannheim. At this point, I did not know that the courses I was particularly interested in are only taught once a year, of course not during my stay in here.

Although the university courses have not started yet, I am already glad that I chose Mannheim. If I could do something differently, I would check the scheduling of the courses more carefully before deciding which semester to spend abroad. Even better, I would come here already as a bachelor, because the variety of interesting economics courses is far more impressive than the supply of masters courses.

The paperwork: part 1

paperwork mannheim

The process from applying to actually studying abroad requires a hefty amount of paperwork and arrangements. This is the timeline of the practicalities before and in the beginning of my stay in Mannheim.

January – the application period.

March – the results of the selection and accepting the place. After receiving the news, I had approximately one week time to inform Aalto University and two weeks to inform the University of Mannheim about my decision to accept the place. Later this month, I got an e-mail from the University of Mannheim with the information about the semester dates and the date of the Summer Academy, an optional language and culture course. I was told that I would receive more information only in May.

April – scholarships. In April, I got a scholarship letter from Aalto. It is an official certificate of being selected to the exchange program and being entitled to a scholarship. I also applied for the scholarship provided by KY. An orientation session was organised to all future exchange students.

May – finally more information from UniMa. I got my credentials to the university portal  (myUniMA) late in May, only a week before the beginning of June. Access to the portal is essential, because without it, nothing can be done. I also got my Welcome Letter, Letter of Admission and a Notice of Semester Fee (80,90€).

June – everything happens. In the beginning of June, I enrolled to the Summer Academy and paid the corresponding lovely fee of 605€. Since I now knew the day I had to be in Mannheim, I also bought the tickets to there (plane 170€, train 25€). While I was at it, I made a travelling notification to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (matkustusilmoitus.fi).

It became clear that this late, I had no hope of getting a dorm room via the university. I started sending replies to “room for rent” ads. The portal for students of UniMa (https://zimmer.uni-mannheim.de ) was the easiest option, but I also used Studenten-wg.de to search for accommodation. Scanning through and replying to the new ads first thing in the morning was the best strategy, as the market was lively and the rooms were reserved quickly. I think my status as an international student staying in Mannheim for barely half a year definitely worked against meI got a reply to only about a half of my messages and had a Skype-meeting with two people, the other being my future flatmate.

In June, I took the Erasmus language test in the language of the studies, English. This test has to be taken before and after the exchange, unless your skill level is C2, in which case the second part can be forgotten. Less tests, yay!

July – the last minute arrangements. Since I would participate in the Summer Academy, I had to take another language test, but in German this time. I ordered the European health insurance card, made arrangements with my bank to customize the travelling insurance and made sure that I could use my phone, including the internet, normally in Germany.

Other things to do before leaving is to fill and sign the Erasmus+ Learning Agreement, which includes selecting the courses for the semester, to check that your HOPS is up to date and that your passport is still valid.

August – enrollments. When I arrived, I had to enroll to the International Summer Academy, to the University and register myself at the Residents‘ Registration Office. German skills are valuable at the Registration Office, because the English skills of the personnel might not be good. We got English translations to help fill the German forms, though.

The first week in Mannheim: arrival and welcome

The route to Mannheim

There are two ways to get to Mannheim from Finland: either by plane or driving a car. A flight will be many times faster, so unless you have a special need to take your own car with you, take the plane. That’s what I did.

I decided to go for the most direct route available: by plane to Frankfurt and by train from there to Mannheim. There were some cheaper alternatives, but I preferred as few interchanges as possible. Tip: Don’t book the cheaper flight that leaves at 6 am unless you have a ride to the airport, because having to take a taxi, you end up paying the same amount. If you do have to use a taxi, I recommend taking the Yellow line (airport taxi) that costs almost half of the price of some other alternatives.

My airplane company was Lufthansa. Apart from the inconvenience of baggage check-in the experience was pleasant. The problem was that if you had done the check-in at home, you could not print the luggage tags at the airport, which meant that the check-in took a longer time. There were no baggage drop-off counters without personnel available. We got snacks at the 2,5-hour flight and arrived safely a bit ahead of schedule. At the Frankfurt airport, I had no issues in navigating to the train station, but I did get to know Deutsche Bahn. Far from the famous German punctuality. My first train was cancelled and the second one late, leaving from different tracks than announced originally. When I finally got to the train, I could not get a seat, but that was fine since the trip only took half an hour.

When I finally reached my flat, I had a contact there waiting for me. I got the keys and a tour in the flat. My flatmate had left me a “quick start guide” since he could not be there to walk me through the practicalities in person.

Enrollments

I had three enrollments to complete, one for the International Summer Academy, another for the semester in the university and third one in the Resident’s Registration Office. Out of these, the first two had to be done during the first days and the third one at latest two weeks after arrival. The process itself was easy since we got all the essential information before and during the enrollment. I’d advice to take some snacks with you though, because the time queuing in different places might be long.

The start of the International Summer Academy

There was a soft landing to the language studies as the first two days were dedicated to enrollment and settling down. We had a welcoming event at the second day but the classes started only the day after that, which happened to be a Friday. In contrast, the free time activities started right away. Get-togethers, clubbing, day trips… There were many opportunities to make some new friends and to get to know the surroundings. We were kept up to date by messages in Facebook and Whatsapp groups as well as  by student mentors popping up in the classes. This continued even after the first week. If we had any questions, we could contact the student mentors and our personal student partners, “buddies”.

At the end of the week, I did feel welcome.

Germany, prove me wrong

MANNHEIM

The airplane to Germany takes off early tomorrow morning. Suddenly, my five months abroad have become very real. In the eve of the exchange, what are my expectations about and prejudice towards Mannheim, the University of Mannheim and German people at this point? Here are five (mis)conceptions to be proven wrong.

  1. They do not like to speak English, or at least they prefer the attempts of speaking their language. They are not as bad as the French, though, I hear. However, in a university city, I expect English to be used widely.
  2. Mannheim is not marketed as a beautiful place. Apparently, it is a boxy design with architecture forgotten from the plans.
  3. They have dubbed everything and I will be having trouble finding a cinema with any English in it. On the other hand, I have no other choice than to learn the language.
  4. My fellow students take their studies seriously and spend time with their books (or laptops).
  5. They have only a short time to write their exams which will mean trouble for me, being used to four hours of time.

How badly I am mislead – we will see soon enough.