Elevating Educational Outcomes for Working-Class Children

Katja Urbatsch sparked a movement for first-generation students or “working-class children” to ensure that all students, regardless of their social backgrounds, are able to attend and thrive in university.  

Katja Urbatsch, CEO and Founder of ArbeiterKind.de

Berlin, Germany

Education, Germany, First-Generation Students, Women Social Entrepreneur
Katja Urbatsch founded ArbeirterKind.de in 2008 and it is now the largest community for first-generation university students. Photo by ArbeiterKind.de

“First-generation students,” or students who are the first in their immediate family to attend college, are often prioritized with special funding opportunities and celebrated as success stories in many countries. But in Germany, this term was only popularized when Katja Urbatsch founded ArbeiterKind.de, German for “working-class child.” This organization provides first-generation college students with all the resources necessary to pursue and thrive in higher education. 

With humble origins in rural Germany, Katja recalled feeling lost and inadequate. Katja hails from a working-class family; she and her brother were the first in the family to attend university.  Thankfully, she had professors and teaching assistants who, in her words, “encouraged me and taught me that I am better than I think.” But, as Katja climbed higher on the academic ladder during her PhD studies, the waves of self-doubt she conquered in university only seemed to intensify.  

Realizing how many first-generation students share this struggle, Katja decided to fill the gaps of support hindering the success of these students by launching a website to centralize resources pertaining to funding, admissions, and other tools. To her surprise, the site struck a nerve in German society—suddenly, many Germans were approaching Katja saying, “You are telling my story, and I want to help you.”  

This website would eventually bloom into the organization “ArbeiterKind.de,” Germany’s largest community for first-generation students. Katja and her team provide resources, funding, and mentors to tens of thousands of students in Germany from before university enrollment to employment.  

As the name not-so-subtly implies, social class plays a huge role in determining who receives higher education. Even though Germany’s educational system theoretically provides accessible and affordable university, the decision to go or not is often dictated by social class and familial legacy. In fact, ArbeiterKind.de reports that children whose parents hold a degree have a 3.3 times greater likelihood of studying at university than children whose parents do not hold a degree.  

While scholarships and tools are important to encourage kids to attend university, Katja believes that this issue must be addressed on a more personal level. To empower first-generation students to expand their horizons and sever the tie between class and education, Katja has trained a legion of volunteers across Germany to act as points of reference during tens of thousands of students’ journeys.  

At the same time, ArbeiterKind.de offers a nationwide network of support, both online and off, to answer questions one may have about entering university such as how to get funding and how to take the first steps to apply for a degree program. Their strategy is working: ArbeiterKind.de’s programs have increased the proportion of first-generation students at universities and decreased the dropout rate, according to ArbeiterKind.de’s annual report.  

Mentors Modifying Mindsets

ArbeiterKind.de understands that not everyone has the same chances, but they are offering a solution: peer-to-peer mentorship and easy-to-access resources alleviate apprehension from first-generation students. Their reach is formidable, with the website alone reaching close to 1 million students. 

Katja knows from her own experiences that when a young person has no one in their family to ask about the college process, many times they assume that they cannot afford it or are overwhelmed by the application process. Even when Katja was studying, her family peppered her with questions such as, ‘You go to university, and then what? What will you do with your major, American Studies? How much money will you earn?’ 

Education, Germany, First-Generation Students, Women Social Entrepreneur
Over 6,000 volunteers are working directly with prospective and current students to ensure they have all the tools and moral support necessary to thrive. Photo by ArbeiterKind.de

At the time, she didn’t have the answers. But now, answering these questions and so many others for tens of thousands of students is a highly-accessible peer-to-peer network of over 7,000 volunteers who reach over 30,000 students a year. Most of these volunteers are first-generation students themselves, which makes each mentorship relationship even more personal. These volunteers are loosening classism’s hold on German academia by showing by example that education is not inherited, but earned. Katja succinctly remarked, “We have to change the idea that the prospects of children are given according to their parents. We first have to change attitudes, and then I think the system will change.”  

To change this mindset, volunteers are providing students from ninth and tenth grade onwards with confidence and encouragement. Katja mentioned that the ArbeiterKind.de method is rooted in the power of shared stories: “Share your own story to empower other first-generation students,” she said. 

 The accessible and down-to-earth nature embodied in ArbeiterKind.de’s strategies allows them to shift attitudes among students and teachers across Germany around who can and should go to college. Katja explained, “I think we started a movement where people are role models and where they can tell their own stories and inspire others.” 

Education, Germany, First-Generation Students, Women Social Entrepreneur
"I'm involved with ArbeiterKind.de because I want to do something proactive against the inequality of education and opportunities in the German education system. I am also happy to pass on what I know about my studies and the experience I have gained” Rebecca Katzenberger, Digital Work student. Photo and quote from ArbeiterKind.de.

ArbeiterKind.de volunteers are boosting confidence and answering questions in schools across Germany where those from historically non-academic backgrounds are met with encouragement, resources, information, and an action plan to achieve their goals. Volunteers can choose their involvement, whether they go into schools to hold information sessions, edit CVs, or provide professional development support with the Career Entry Program. ArbeiterKind.de provides support for every step of the journey, as students enter the workforce or prepare to pursue a PhD or Master’s Degree.  

ArbeiterKind.de also hosts monthly open meetings of 80 volunteer groups, offers pop-up information booths, facilitates counseling hours, operates a hotline for students to call with questions, and offers support through social media. By providing personalized support to thousands of students, ArbeiterKind.de is transforming the once-inaccessible system of higher education into a more equitable process. In fact, half of those who attended information sessions reported a personal attitude shift: “I see now that studying at a university is a feasible option for me.“ In fact, in all evaluated topic areas, participants of the ArbeiterKind.de session reported feeling more confident and knowledgeable about finances and next steps than students that had not attended the session. 

14 Years of Mentoring Success

In May 2022, ArbeiterKind.de will celebrate its 14th year of ensuring that children in Germany, regardless of their social origin or parents’ education, have equal opportunities to attend university. As a testament to the impact of ArbeiterKind.de, the organization has won dozens of awards and has successfully created a network of thousands of mentors who can meet the diverse needs of students across the country. One of the most prestigious awards bestowed upon Katja is the Federal Cross of Merit. Not only is Katja decorated, but she also has a powerful role in consulting and advising on German education policy. She has been appointed Honorary Senator of the Justus Liebig University Giessen and consulted as the advisory opinion when the German Federal Government reformed the Federal Training Assistance Act (BAFöG) in 2019. 

Today, ArbeiterKind.de is known for coining the idea and category of first-generation students, and providing the necessary resources and support students need to thrive academically. Previously in Germany, “first-generation college student” did not exist as an idea or a phrase, but a lot has changed since Katja founded ArbeiterKind.de in 2009. 

By Audrey Lodes