29. November 2022 | Magazine:

Role Model: C. Gabriel David Experiences as a First Generation Academic

The project Role Models: First Generation Academics at TU Braunschweig makes social diversity at our university visible within the framework of Focus 2022, enables people to get to know different educational biographies and creates academic role models for First Generation Students. Through short interviews, various members of TU Braunschweig who were the first in their family to study introduce themselves. This time: Dr. C. Gabriel David, head of the junior research group “Future Urban Coastlines” at the Leichtweiß Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Water Resources.

Dr. C. Gabriel David, Junior Research Group Leader “Future Urban Coastlines” at the Leichtweiß Institute of Hydraulic Engineering and Water Resources. Photo credit: C.Gabriel David

When did you decide to study and what influenced that decision?

Basically, I only ever made piecemeal decisions throughout my school years and then chose the best possible option. I never thought I would pass the Abitur. During my lower secondary level years – despite going to a grammar school – it was clear to me that I would do an apprenticeship because it was the only option I knew from my family and relatives. When the possibility of doing the Abitur came up, I gave it a try. Of course, I later decided to go to university when this option opened up for me. My parents also encouraged me in this decision.

In what situations did you realise that you were a first generation academic?

Right from the time I was choosing my studies. I only considered subjects that had an immediately recognisable profession behind them: After a teacher training course you become a teacher, if you study civil engineering you become a civil engineer, if you study architecture you become an architect, and so on. I see it differently today – the degree is not a professional training, but should help to promote interests. Fortunately, I realised this in time and was able to pursue my interest in water and waves in my Master’s degree. I continued along this line in my doctorate and, in addition to the classic coastal engineering topics, I got involved in aspects of geosciences and social sciences, as well as dealing with various programming languages and other “computer” topics (high performance computing, microcontrollers and single-board computers in the context of measurement technology, GNU software, etc.).

What personal resources were you able to draw on?

From my parents I learned that for the right goals, you should get out of your comfort zone, break new ground and work for it. In addition, my parents also supported me financially through my studies by paying rent and part of my living expenses. On the side, I worked as a student assistant almost throughout my entire time at university and was able to draw on my savings from my civilian service. My stay abroad was made possible by funding from the ERASMUS programme.

In addition, the study groups during my Bachelor’s programme at Mainz University of Applied Sciences were relatively small, so I was able to build up a good rapport with the professors, who gave me additional tips along the way. Through one of these tips, I knew, for example, that Leibniz Universität Hannover and TU Braunschweig, with their joint facility, the large wave flume, are excellent locations for coastal engineering and that I wanted to study at one of these universities for my Master’s degree. At Leibniz Universität Hannover, the academic staff (including Prof. Nils Goseberg, who was still a research associate in Hannover at the time), my doctoral supervisor (Prof. Torsten Schlurmann) and my co-supervisor (Prof. Volker Roeber, today Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, UPPA) supported me – and still do, as do my colleagues here in Braunschweig!

What hurdles have you encountered on your career path so far? What helped you to overcome them?

First of all, I studied mathematics at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz for one semester to become a teacher. I probably would have just passed the basic course, but I was initially put off by the very free learning atmosphere – I wasn’t used to that at school! I then decided on something more “solid”, namely civil engineering at Mainz University of Applied Sciences, only to realise at the end of my Bachelor’s degree, during my year abroad in Sweden, that I was fascinated by the free scientific work practised at the university. Fortunately, I was able to transfer from a university of applied sciences to a regular university for my Master’s degree and was lucky enough to be able to stay there beyond my Master’s degree.

Overcoming the expectations of my relatives (“What is he actually doing there and what will become of him afterwards?”) and at the same time having the trust and patience of my parents that I would choose the right path also really helped me.

What ideas do you have to improve equal opportunities for First Generation Students?

  1. BAföG for all – and uncomplicated! I knew students whose father, for example, had left the family and who only received the legally required minimum support from him, while their mother could not support them to the full extent. While I was able to live on what my parents offered me in terms of help and what I was able to earn as a student assistant, others scrambled from part-time job to part-time job and were more concerned with earning money than with their studies. Other classmates couldn’t go to university because their older siblings were already studying and their parents’ financial means were exhausted or even non-existent. Some fellow students could not think of the “detours” that I could afford, such as a year abroad, their own preparatory work for Bachelor’s and Master’s theses, and therefore probably could not develop their potential as I was able to. I supervised a lot of student work during my time as a PhD student and from my experience, most students are willing to take the extra step if it benefits their education and they can “afford” it. This is not meant to be a free ride, but in my opinion it pays to invest in talent, to enable them to study and not make it more difficult (see for example the interview with Doro Bischoff).
  2. Role Models. I was the first to study, not only in my family but also among my close relatives. At that time, I lacked role models to orient myself on, but without my path being mapped out in advance for me. I have always been lucky to have the right colleagues and supporters, and that’s what I wish for all the talent that we undoubtedly have at the university.

What message would you like to pass on to your student self?

I wouldn’t give myself a message because I wouldn’t want to change the way things are. The path I took is not very straightforward and took a little longer than “normal”, but that never bothered me. I have learned a lot along the way. But I would like to pass that on to all students: It’s a degree, not an apprenticeship, and you have the opportunity to go your own way – whatever that may be! From this comes the necessary curiosity, commitment and strength that drive you and help you deal more easily with the challenges along the way.