Making the world that much better

8 Apr 2024

The contribution made by young people through volunteering is hugely important, especially in times of great social challenges. Young people can plant a flag by working for a better civil society.

The motivations behind volunteering are various. Quite a few students who volunteer come from working-class homes and had to struggle to make it to college. And so they seek to help schoolchildren from non-academic backgrounds in finding their way to university. Others were seriously ill as youngsters and want to express gratitude and give something back to society through their volunteering on behalf of sick children.

Many refugees, too, are socially engaged and help students in their home country gain access to knowledge or help their compatriots in Germany with things like legal aid and translations. Others volunteer for homeless people, give free tutoring in refugee centers, or look after their grandparents alongside their studies.

In the new issue of MUM, which will be published in a few days, we showcase a brief selection from among many projects to illustrate the range of volunteering possibilities offered by the university environment – whether in the social domain, in the Student Council, in cultural or media projects, or a EU Career Ambassador.

“A constituent part of being human”

Prof. Oliver Jahraus

Professor Oliver Jahraus, Vice President for Teaching and Studies | © LMU/Jan Greune

Professor Oliver Jahraus, Vice President for Teaching and Studies at LMU, on the importance of student engagement, its possibilities, and its limits.

Professor Jahraus, there are numerous ways of volunteering as a student – in the social, cultural, and political spheres. What role does volunteering play in student life alongside seminars, lectures, and exams?

Professor Oliver Jahraus: Engagement is fundamental to an academic education, as it is a constituent part of being human. Training in the natural sciences, for example, is driven by scientific curiosity and rigor. However, it also comes with the awareness that science does not take place in a vacuum, but occurs in a social context for which we assume responsibility – and do so specifically through and from within science.

This is reflected, for example, in the approval criteria for scholarships. Whether scholarship programs are sponsored by federal government foundations, churches, political parties, the business sector, or trade unions, the social engagement of young people is always a criterion that has to be fulfilled to receive sponsorship. In this way, sponsors support not only a specific scholarly venture, but also the person who has embarked on the intellectual adventure of an academic education and who is part of a society.

Engagement is also an important criterion for the Germany Scholarship, which was awarded to more LMU students than ever before last year. What role does the scholarship play in this regard?

Oliver Jahraus: First of all, we wish many more LMU students got this scholarship. Nevertheless, we’re very pleased, as this increase will boost the visibility of the scholarship and the program and serve as an example for others.

What’s special about this scholarship is the way it brings together two forms of engagement from different spheres. The basic idea behind the scholarship is to support talented and socially engaged young people. But at the same time, it is designed to encourage civil society to act as sponsors: individuals, foundations, institutions, companies, and many others make contributions – and the government matches the financial commitments of the sponsors.

It is this kind of reciprocity – sponsoring and being sponsored – that makes societies work. In this spirit, the scholarship lays down a marker against polarization and disparity in these crisis-ridden times.

Deutschlandstipendium (Germany Scholarship)

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How is engagement defined as a criterion for a scholarship? In assessing applications, is it only activities in organizational contexts that count – for societies and associations etc.?

Oliver Jahraus: No, it’s not just volunteering in societies or associations that counts. When you dig deeper, you often find astonishing things – students who help elderly people, for example, or support family members. That too is social engagement, even if it perhaps doesn’t always come to light where it can be officially recognized.

The critical point is that they engage with issues beyond their immediate studies, that they are interested in the world in which they live, and that they actively participate in the society of which they are part.

Studying in the 21st century means heavy workloads, the need to take jobs to cope with the rising costs of living in metropolises like Munich. That doesn’t leave much time for volunteering.

Oliver Jahraus: That’s true – the courses themselves are a big challenge. And on top of this, there is the expectation that you should volunteer. But that is just one way of looking at it. Another is that it’s a question of attitude whether you see volunteering as a burden, an additional obligation, or rather as an opportunity for growth and self-actualization.

I have access to many biographies of students – and when I see everything these young people are doing, then I can hardly complain about my own busy schedule. The plethora of ways in which they volunteer is truly remarkable!

LMU supports students who volunteer in various ways. Are there limits here? For example, when it comes to political engagement, which might even involve demos at the university or the occupying of lecture halls?

Oliver Jahraus: First of all, we need to differentiate between two aspects: Science is an independent system within society. But it is not independent of society – that is to say, separate and distinct. As such, we can do everything, talk about everything at university, but only on the basis upon which we all meet here: on the basis of scholarship and scientific discourse. In this context, we can naturally address political topics as well, but – and this is key – only from a scientific perspective. Acting contrary to science is not something I could ever view as social engagement.

So how can social issues be addressed in scientific discourse?

Oliver Jahraus: In the final analysis, we’re always conducting science for the benefit of society. This doesn’t just mean the making of outstanding scientific discoveries that improve people’s lives, but that science helps shape and define society, which after all is a knowledge society in a very important sense. To do this, science needs freedom; freedom based on engagement. Funds and universities strive to combine scientific work and social engagement particularly when it comes to the next generation of researchers and academics.

All disciplines can contribute to this enterprise – including my own field of the humanities. The contribution of the humanities is perhaps not as obvious as a groundbreaking result in the natural sciences. Yet the humanities too play a vital role – subcutaneously as it were – in creating cultural resources that feed into the bloodstream of a free society. Precisely for this reason, it’s vitally important to promote and support social engagement in an academic context.

“Youmocracy” – Every opinion counts

Youmocracy” promotes a culture of respectful debate at German universities. Democracy benefits from plurality of opinions – if controversies are thrashed out fairly. We talk to an LMU student who volunteers for the Munich chapter.

Public debates have changed. The tone has become harsher, the clashes more aggressive. Tolerance and respect are losing ground. And last but not least, fake news is threatening our culture of debate and discussion. These are all bad news for democracy. The Youmocracy society founded by Florentin Siegert in 2020 is pushing back. Its goal is to promote healthy debate at German universities.

“We want to bring a positive debate culture into society as often and as regularly as possible,” explains Paula Hofmann from the Munich chapter. Her team, which is made up of LMU students, has already organized many exciting debates. Shortly after the federal German elections, there was a debate on the voting decisions of young voters. There were events on the role of major powers and the rise of China, on social inequality, and on whether a year of national service working on social projects should be mandatory for all. And there were debates on Elon Musk’s media power, the climate change protests, and artificial intelligence.

Fishbowl discussions

The student initiative to strengthen democracy kicked off the new year with a debate on how democratic parties should respond to the general swing to the right. Over fifty invited guests converged on the cultural center in Hasenbergl – the first event on this scale for the association. The organizers even debuted a new format: the so-called “fishbowl” discussion. If somebody in the audience wanted to contribute something to a discussion, they simply sat down briefly on the stage with the representatives from the youth wings of the conservative CDU/CSU, the Green Party, and the liberal FDP, the Association of Jewish Students, and the Munich nonprofit “München ist bunt,” which campaigns for tolerance and diversity, to have their say. The idea was a resounding success. Indeed, there was such interest in taking part in the discussion that long lines kept forming.

Experienced debaters sat down on the free chairs, but also people who confided to moderator Paula Hofmann that they’d never spoken on a stage before.

“For people who come to these events, it’s a perfect opportunity to dip their toe in the water,” says Paula Hofmann. “They should feel empowered and come away with the sense that their opinion is important for democracy.”

The 22-year-old politics student has been running the Youmocracy discussion panels for the past three years – this year alongside fellow students Thomas Weber, Linus Spörl, and Vinzenz Knöll. Her training to become a democratic ambassador included role plays, where she figured out the best way of dealing with the typical characters you find in debates: “the gabber,” “the disruptor,” and “the quiet one.”

The picture shows the four members of the Youmocracy Munich team. They are holding a sign with the words “Youmocracy” in the picture.

The Munich team of the student association Youmocracy, which is committed to a fair and respectful culture of dialogue.

© Youmocracy/Linus Spörl

Fundamental willingness to reach consensus

Good training is a must, as the standards the association sets for debate culture are high. It is no coincidence that two former presidents of the German Bundestag sit on the advisory board: Wolfgang Thierse (SPD) and Norbert Lammert (CDU).

Fairness and respect are demanded of discussion participants, as are openness, lack of prejudice, and tolerance toward every political stripe. All these things are set out in the organization’s statutes, which are designed to foster not only plurality of opinion, but also a fundamental willingness to reach consensus. “As a moderator, you need empathy and tact,” says Hofmann. She finds it difficult to butt in when people are going on too long. It is also tricky, she finds, to keep discussions flowing and dynamic. And naturally it is not easy for a politically minded person to suppress their own opinions. “That takes a lot of self-discipline and practice,” she says.

Her training paid off again this time. At one point, the discussion threatened to go off the rails, with arguments about the war in Gaza flying around. The atmosphere was highly charged.

Even though she had expected this to happen, it was a tense moment all the same. “It was a tightrope walk. I wanted to give space to opinions and allow people to feel heard and let off steam.” But: “Israel was not the topic of the evening.” With this pragmatic argument, she brought the discussion back on track.

Another incident two days before had shown how raw people’s nerves are at the moment. At short notice, the Association of Jewish Students opposed using the “EineWeltHaus” center as the venue for the event. Paula Hofmann was forced to attempt the impossible and find a new venue at the drop of a hat, a feat she pulled off when she secured the cultural center in Hasenbergl.

Five hours of volunteering per week

For her volunteering role, she usually has to sacrifice around five hours per week. Chairing meetings, doing press, preparing and evaluating events: “It’s fun and I get a lot out of it.” In her experience, “[i]t’s important to prioritize it. If you just do it casually, it won’t grow. And you can’t manage it alone either. I’m a big fan of doing something in a team and pooling abilities. We need people who don’t just talk but get things done.” The Munich group has many plans for the future. Two large events and multiple smaller ones are on their to-do list. Their next event is scheduled for Democracy Day on 25 May. The organizers are expecting hundreds of participants – at least!

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