“It's fun and expands one’s horizons”: the Host Family Program at Jacobs University Bremen
Birthe Harsdorf, Jacobs student Desar Mejdani aus Albanien, Hannes, Stefan and Sönke Harsdorf (from left). Photo: Rainer Geue ,


June 7, 2018

Birthe and Stefan Harsdorf know what it's like to have their child live abroad. Their eldest son Sönke, now 19 years old, was in Sweden for a year on a student exchange program. “As a parent it’s nice to know that someone is there for one’s child,” says Stefan Harsdorf. The Harsdorf family is “there” - for Desar, an 18-year-old Albanian who is studying physics at Jacobs University Bremen.

They see each other almost every second weekend. They eat asparagus together, go on excursions into the countryside, go to the theater, watch the games of Werder Bremen together at the public viewing in a parish, co-organized by their younger son Hannes (15). “With Desar,” says Stefan Harsdorf, “we’re rediscovering the city. We’re also doing more together as a family again.”

The Host Family Program at Jacobs University is not about full-time support for students. They live on the university campus and lead an own independent life. Being part of the program is like having a godparent. It is offered to students from over 100 countries who want to know more about what is for them a foreign country with a foreign language and culture.

, Stefan and Birthe Harsdorf, Jacobs student Desar Mejdani from Albania, and the sons Hannes and Sönke (from left). Photo: Rainer Geue

This can result in casual or intensive contact, depending on how good they get along with each other. Desar has become part of the Harsdorf family. What does it take to be a host family? “Calmness, curiosity, tolerance, humor, cosmopolitanism and a basic understanding that things literally work differently in other cultures than they do here,” says Stefan Harsdorf. Basic English is a requirement as the students generally do not speak German.

Birthe Harsdorf, who works as a primary school teacher, heard about the program from a colleague, and last summer the family registered. The idea was to motivate Hannes to speak English. It turned out to be a really great idea. “Hannes now even explains East Frisian jokes in English,” says Stefan Harsdorf. Like Desar, he is interested in physics, and from time to time he meets him on his own, without his parents.

Desar grew up in Berat, which is a World Heritage city. He won the Physics Olympiad in his home country. He was granted a scholarship so that he could attend Jacobs University. “The communication between us is not a one-way street, we also learn a lot about Albania,” says Stefan Harsdorf, who is a physicist himself. Desar is also a role model for his children. “He has respect for education, he knows it is not something to be taken for granted, but a privilege.”

Although the Harsdorf family only lives a few miles from Jacobs University, they had not taken much notice of it before taking part in the program. That has now changed. The family was at Jacobs University for the Chinese New Year, at the Art Fest, where Desar, who paints, had an exhibition, and soon they will be joining him for a meal in one of the canteens. “It's great to be in contact with young people,” says Stefan Harsdorf. “The program expands one’s horizons, it's fun.”

When he was a student he himself went to France on an exchange program, 35 years ago. It resulted in a life-long friendship. His schoolmate at that time will soon be celebrating his 50th birthday. Stefan Harsdorf has been invited and of course he will go there.

Those who would like to join the Host Family Program can contact the Student Service Center: Telephone 0421/ 200 4208, E-Mail: hostfamilies [at] jacobs-university.de .

This text is part of the series "Faces of Jacobs", in which Jacobs University is featuring students, alumni, professors and employees. For more stories, please have a look at www.jacobs-university.de/faces

For more information about the Host Families Program