The University of Applied Sciences in Offenburg teamed up with the local pensioners' bureau to form the “Senior Service” programme in 2002. It now provides roughly 50 retired volunteers to help cushion the students' culture shock with German language lessons, rambles through the Black Forest and visits to art galleries and the theatre.
The students, who come from as far afield as South America, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, benefit from time with the local retirees eager to share their time and acquired wisdom.
According to the university's website, the program “has been going from strength to strength” since it started, now welcoming around 150 students from 60 countries each year.
In December 2010 the programme received the Hochschulperle from the German science and industry institution Stifterverband.
“The most exciting part is the contact with the students,” says project leader and former electrical engineer Franz Roser. “I was on the road a lot during my career, and benefited a lot from others' hospitality abroad. By far the nicest thing that can happen is an invitation to someone's home.”
Rohish Kalvit, an energy conversion and management student from Pune, India has high praise for the scheme, having struck up friendships with three different Offenburg families since taking part.
“We chat in German about all kinds of topics, which I really appreciate,” the 27-year-old says.
It is not uncommon for the pensioners to take on the role of mentors.
“For my internship last semester, one family proofread my application and corrected by CV and cover letter. I got a lot of useful tips that way,” says Kalvit.
“We see the students become more independent and self-confident through their time here,” says Marlies Pollet, the university's coordinator for the project.
Polleta highlights the example of Rima Sultana, a 28-year-old student from Bangladesh. “Rima learned how to swim and ride a bike here. She wanted to try everything women aren't able to do in Bangladesh.”
Under the guidance of Franz Roser, Sultana also took a motorbike trip along the length of the Schwarzwaldhochstraße, the high-altitude road running the length of the Black Forest.
“She really like passing and driving fast around curves,” Roser says.
She is now working toward her doctoral degree in Strasbourg.
It's not just the students who stand to learn and grow from the exchange, though.
“We've never had the Atlas on the table so often at home,” he added.
Though the project is the only one of its kind in Germany, the Stifterverband hopes that other institutions will follow Offenburg's example, spokesperson Frank Stäudner said.