A story of a Filipino Ph.D. student in Germany
By Judee Bendiola
As a graduate student in a foreign land, what will you do when amid the pandemic you have tried all the possible options to survive and still somehow find yourself struggling? Will you stay on and fight for your dreams in the middle of these ongoing difficulties? Or will you give up your studies and answer the call to go home and be with your loved ones in the Philippines? This dilemma is not new and almost everyone overseas have been at this exact crossroad, at one point or another. One international scholar finding himself at this juncture bravely chose to give up his doctoral studies and is now finally home in the Philippines.
How his Ph.D. studies started in Germany
Daniel Vicario’s research project was about laboratory tomographic microscopy using soft x-ray. Initially, he was accepted to two other universities in Taiwan but when Erasmus Mundus emailed him, he immediately did his best to ace the interview. He then embarked on a joint doctorate program at three universities: RWTH Aachen University in Germany, Military Technical University in Poland, and the University College Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. Who wouldn’t grab the opportunity to travel and experience living in more than two countries in Europe? It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow as a person and one Daniel decided he shouldn’t miss.
But Daniel’s motivation to pursue higher studies has always been to be better and more successful for his family, students, and partner at that time. His goal was to finish his studies within the three-year contract, go back to the Philippines to teach again and share his experiences.
When Daniel arrived in Germany on Sept. 9, 2015, he already felt the difference—it was cold and the people are noticeably more serious-looking, disciplined. The Germany that welcomed him was one he describes as organized, clean, and systematic. From arriving at the airport, he observed that their transportation system is effective, fast, and efficient. He found his home in Aachen and there is no doubt that Germany offered an amazing start for him.
The unavoidable challenges
Life overseas is not always rainbows and butterflies. What hit Daniel hard was the language barrier. Not understanding meant it became frustrating for him to smoothly integrate himself into the system. He needed to translate everything into English sometimes, to sign documents for example. It was the same even just for getting through daily activities like buying food and traveling from one place to another.
The lack of a support system made his first year very critical. Daniel found the Germans not that friendly especially if you could not speak their language. “I was really lonely, and I felt alone. At that time, my family and my partner also were not that supportive. I couldn’t blame them, [but it was] mainly because of the time zone difference, and their life expectations and assumptions that everything is good in Germany,” he says.
Moreover, there was a considerable difference in the education system. He was not able to start his Ph.D. on time because he found it hard for the educational institution to accredit his Philippine diploma. His master’s degree was only equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. Thankfully, the Ph.D. admission committee only required him to take nine master’s degree units of physics for one semester.
All in all, he was overwhelmed by too much bureaucracy. “This is something good but shocking for me. It seems very organized but sometimes too confusing. You need an appointment, you need to follow the steps, and you need to submit the requirements. This can be a cyclic and repetitive process sometimes. There are a lot of offices and [many] requirements to accomplish, and most of these are in different buildings or offices in the city,” says Daniel.
Last but not the least, his savings were running out. Within his first three years, he had a salary from the program, and for the following year he had an unemployment allowance from the German government. After that, he had to make it on his own, surviving from his own savings. Living in Germany is very expensive, and you will definitely feel the pinch if you were to rely only on what is in your pocket.
Exhausted solutions to survive
The unemployment benefit for one year and the B2 language course really helped him survive. He did not have to pay for insurance. It was taken care of by the government. For this lifeline, he was very thankful for the German government’s social welfare system. He felt helpless at that time, but he also felt that the government had a system to take care of its people. The job center even offered a free B2 German language course for him to have a better chance of getting accepted for work.
His Filipino friends kept him grounded and sane. They were always there for him. He, it would seem, found a family away from home with them. “I realized that I could actually make it and live in Germany mainly because of my Filipino friends,” says Daniel. Along the way, he also met friends from other countries who also had similar challenges. “We had common experiences so they were easy to get along and relate with,” he adds. They were like birds of the same feather, albeit temporarily flightless altogether.
The brave decision to move forward
What made Daniel decide to discontinue his Ph.D. journey and return home are the finances. He was not successful in landing a job. It became even more challenging at the start of pandemic and when lockdowns began. A lot of people lost their jobs, and it was difficult more than ever to get any form of employment.
Now, he is back in the Philippines with his mother and other family members, enjoying home-cooked meals and finding comfort knowing that no matter what, there are familiar people taking good care of him. Asked if he has any regrets, Daniel answered with a resounding no. He is confidently moving forward by continuing his career in teaching as well as taking on another job as a financial advisor in one of the Philippines’ largest insurance companies. He is working hard to pay for the paid study leave, which he didn’t continue.
His message to all who are interested in pursuing postgraduate studies in Germany: “Prepare yourself! It will not be easy. You will grow not only as a scientist but also as a person. Ask for advice, meet friends, explore, travel, and enjoy their culture.” For Daniel, his years in Germany taught him to recognize when to give up in a situation that is no longer tenable and to be at peace with this decision. Success comes in different forms. And one may find it, too, back home in the Philippines.
Contributing writer Judee Bendiola is a Filipino expat in Germany. Get to know Judee on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter at @iamjudeebee. She is also currently working as a Marketing & Communication professional for Non-profits. You can reach out for possible collaboration via LinkedIn or at [email protected] Join her advocacy in supporting the Global Filipino community and share her stories.