Think world heritage and you probably think of old architecture in exotic locations. But it's also something you can get a master's or doctoral degree in. A German university is leading the way in this unusual field.
Marie-Theres Albert's small office is abuzz. While other professors and their students are enjoying summer vacation, she is busy preparing for a summer academy which participants from all over the world are planning to attend.
Chee Meng Wong, a student from China, has just put his doctoral thesis on Albert's desk. His focus is the significance of Indian dance in Singapore. Nothing is too exotic for this department.
"It's all in a day's work for us," says Albert with enthusiasm. She enjoys the fact that her department - World Heritage Studies - is international and out of the ordinary. Meng is one of 13 doctoral students and 113 master's students who are studying cultural and natural heritage in the eastern German city of Cottbus, right near the Polish border.
Wong's study of Indian dance is a prime example of the work that is done here. "A dancer doesn't only stand for his or her own culture," explains Wong, who worked as a dancer in Singapore before coming to Cottbus. "Through dance, cultural, national and gender boundaries can be overcome. What's left are the people."
Moving from Singapore to the small town of Cottbus may sound unusual, but culture experts from all over the world have already been coming here for years. In 1999, the Brandenburg Technical University founded the World Heritage degree programs, which Marie-Theres Albert has directed since 2003. It's one of 10 official UNESCO departments in Germany.
Albert worked hard to have her department recognized by UNESCO - not least because of the financial ramifications. "You have to bring money to get a UNESCO professorship," she says. "You have to prove you have third-party funds in order to start projects."
For Albert, the driving factor was her conviction the diversity of the world we live in is so large that people can hardly grasp it.
"That's why we need reference points to orient ourselves," she explains. "And what better way to understand the world than examining our heritage?"
Wilhelmshöhe mountain park in Kassel was recently added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites
From pioneer to model
Marie-Theres Albert has a convincing demeanor, with her solid handshake, red lipstick, open smile, and confident expression. It took her many years of tireless lobbying to establish an interdisciplinary curriculum at a technical university. She says she often faced criticism for her "crazy" idea.
But today, the program is looked to as a model and Cottbus is seen as a pioneer in the field. Architecture and the preservation of monuments are included in the curriculum, along with ecology, landscape design and civil engineering.
"No matter where I go, I always hear, 'Oh you're from Cottbus,'" comments Albert. "We were the first to offer the World Heritage master's program and we are now the first with a doctoral program."
Cottbus is a leader among the World Heritage study programs around the world, emphasized the professor. It's not surprising, then, that Cottbus graduates have strong career options.
Eike Schmedt says he learns a lot from his fellow students
"All [of the students] bring different specialties and - most importantly - their culture," Albert raved about her students.
Because of the diverse participants, her seminars inevitably allow room for a variety of perspectives. "When 10 students from 10 different countries work together, then that's interculturalism. I as the professor don't really have to explain anything more."
Eike Schmedt is one of the few students in the program from Germany. The 26-year-old from the small town of Goslar in the center of the country has already completed one college degree, which is a requirement for the four-semester Masters program. In Cottbus, all the courses are held in English.
Schmedt particularly enjoys the exchange with his fellow students from different cultural backgrounds. "The way I perceive things may be different from a cultural expert, say, from the US and that's tremendously interesting," he said. "It's very enriching."
Learning to understand the other students - and to understand differences as an opportunity rather than a threat - is a crucial part of the study program.
Marie-Theres Albert never tires of engaging in discussions with her students. "World heritage is wealth," she said, "And wealth is diversity. That's what we want to achieve with this study program."