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alumni Spotlight

August Alumni Spotlight with Christina Vonhoff, MSEd '17

august 18 alumni spotlight

For many students, higher education isn’t just a career path – it’s a passion. We speak to alumna Christina Vonhoff about higher education in Germany, her experience in the Marxe Higher Education Administration program, and being an international student in New York City.

What are some key differences you’ve noticed between higher education in the U.S. and Germany?
One critical difference between both countries is the financing of higher education institutions. Governmental financial support in the U.S. constitutes only a small share of an institution’s budget, whereas in Germany, public universities are nearly ninety percent funded by the government. U.S. institutions heavily rely on tuition, whereas German public universities generally do not charge tuition. The fact that in the U.S. the financial support of higher education has shifted from institutions to individuals has enforced a marked-based logic, which affects many areas of an institution; this forces institutions to be competitive and innovative. In Germany, I see in general much less market pressure within public institutions, and this sometimes makes institutions reluctant to change and innovate. I realized this when I wrote a class paper on the topic “online students”, that universities in the U.S. are more reliant on computer technology pedagogically and administratively compared to German public institutions. I observed that that U.S. colleges offer more student support services and are more well-staffed than institutions in Germany. However, I see that German universities are moving into a similar direction, as they have expanded their services to students in the last couple of years.

What surprised me a lot is the diversity of higher education institutions and their missions in the U.S., which you will not find in Germany. During my studies at Baruch, I have learned about HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), TCUs (Tribal Colleges and Universities), and women’s colleges. I had the chance to interview an administrator from a women’s college for a class project, which was an excellent opportunity to see how specific missions impact an administrator’s daily work.

Tell us about one or two courses and/or projects that left the most indelible marks on your and your career?
I can say that in each class I had at least one light-bulb moment. In my first semester I took Nonprofit Management, where we analyzed managerial challenges applying Bolman and Deal’s framework, which takes the structural, HR, political, and cultural perspective of an organization into account. For our final paper we developed and analyzed a case study based on a managerial challenge we had experienced at work using this framework. This is a great tool that can be applied for organizational challenges in many contexts. In this class we also explored the challenges of leadership. Being a good leader does not automatically come with holding a senior position but rather through one’s actions and attitudes, which includes consciously spending time managing people and developing a clear understanding of what a team and its members need.

As I have been working for more than eight years in higher education, I benefited from theoretical frameworks we discussed during the program. I always knew that higher education institutions are in many ways different than other organizations; therefore, it was important to me to systematically discuss various aspects of higher education, such as retention models in the Student Services class. Winton’s article “The Awkward Economics of Higher Education,” which we read in the Financing of Higher Education class, had a huge impact on my understanding of higher education at a macro-level. As administrators we often tend to see only the area in which we work – it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Why did you choose to work in higher ed?
I came to higher education by coincidence. With a minor in business I did several internships at large international companies and planned to work in the corporate world after graduation. In my last semester I worked as a student assistant at the dean’s office of the business school at the University of Mannheim. Until today I remember how impressed I was by the dean’s office’s team members and their professionalism, motivation, and engagement. It turned out that my first job after graduation was to manage the international accreditations of the business school.

I still like to work in higher education because I can strongly identify with the purpose of higher educations institutions. They help to transform students into critically and independently thinking citizens, enhance social mobility, and tackle today’s pressing societal challenges through research. I value not only the personal impact that universities have on individual lives but also their important role for society as a whole.

What are some of the challenges of being an international student? What about the benefits?
New York City and Baruch College are in my opinion ideal places for internationals – they are welcoming, open, supportive, and friendly. My experience in NYC corroborates what Tom Wolfe once said, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” I also instantly felt a sense of belonging at Baruch, which is a great place to learn and to be challenged.

Challenges emerged from my status as a non-native English speaker. Especially in the beginning, I remember that it took a long time to write a paper or to read the class material. However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage, as this has forced me to deeply engage with the class material. In addition, when discussing the U.S. educational system, I could not rely on personal experiences compared to my classmates, and I had to learn about the system from books. The advantage of being an “outsider“ is that you have a critical distance. And learning about the U.S. higher education system made me in the end more knowledgeable about the German system as I automatically compared both systems.

However, being an international student was not the main challenge in this program. A much bigger challenge was balancing my job, studies, and family – and making the most out of living in the most exciting city in the world. But I consider this to have been a great opportunity to learn how to organize myself and to prioritize tasks. The program has advanced me in many different ways, and I am very grateful for all the wonderful experiences I had at Baruch College.