Sophomores Explore Switzerland
January 27, 2023
Vivien Pihlstrom ’25 describes semester abroad
Nestled between the peaks and valleys of the Swiss mountains sits Swiss Semester, a highly competitive three month study abroad program for high school sophomores, Pihlstrom chose to attend for the first semester of the school year.
Inspired by both her cousin and sister’s great experiences in Zermatt, Pihlstrom said she “didn’t have any doubts about applying.” She adds, “The activities were a deciding factor and also being in another country was also something really cool.”
Swiss Sem combines rigorous academics with the picturesque landscape. Students would wake up around 7 a.m., eat breakfast as a group, have a morning meeting and either three or four classes. Students then had an activity block where, “you’d either do a hike, you’d climb, you’d have a science lab for geology, or you’d go back to your classes.” In the winter, this time was spent skiing down Switzerland’s slopes.
The schedule was jam packed, often Pihlstrom and fellow Swiss Sem members “found it really hard to complete all of their homework in that time frame.” She continues, “Specifically for the languages, we’d learn a verb tense in a day and then have a quiz on it the next day.” Yet upon return, “you’re pretty ahead in most other subjects,” Pihlstrom explains.
Weekends were dependent on the weather rather than a normal five day week and two day weekend, but were untraditional in more ways than one. The longest “week” of school was eleven days straight. “It was crazy,” Pihlstrom recalls. Bike trips, hikes, museum visits, ice climbing, and mountain hiking were all offered over two day periods. Pihlstrom recollects, “I choose to do a lot of the bike trips… I went to Bern, the capital, and then I biked to Guerre. And then I went on this glacier walk.”
Other times, groups went to Venice and Annecy where they walked among canals and through old churches. Pihlstrom explains, “You had an assignment packet to complete where you’d visit a bunch of monuments and churches but basically after that you had a lot of free time where you got to walk around these really cool cities.”
Bonding is embedded within the program by operating completely free of electronics. Pihlstrom noted, “I actually really liked [not having my phone].” Students could bond during limited breaks, playing foosball, soccer, and going on runs through the alps. After graduating, they created both a Snapchat group and Instagram account. “I keep in touch with my roommates and then a couple of my other close friends,” Pihlstrom adds. Over Presidents Day weekend, they are hoping to meet up.
Strong bonds go beyond friends, Pihlstrom explains that she continues to keep in touch with her teachers from the program, adding, “They were such interesting people that it was just cool to be around them.”
Students comment on challenges of program
Although many students were ready to return to school on Jan. 3, Swiss Semester students came back to Minnesota from Switzerland for the first time in three months. Leyla Lyu ‘25, Uma Bastodkar ‘25, and Obi Nwokocha ‘25 described their experience in Switzerland and their subsequent return to school.
The students spent their school time as a resident of a school in Zermatt. For Lyu, her favorite part of Swiss semester was “skiing on the mountains.” Bastodkar says that her favorite part was “going to Venice, hiking, and climbing.” The students’ curriculum was heavily condensed to make room for activities. Because of the condensed classes, students only had a two-hour period to complete all their homework for the day. Nwokocha says this rigorous schedule developed his “time management since [he didn’t] have all the time from getting home after school.” Bastodkar agrees, saying she “developed really good time management because we had no time to do anything.”
Although those experiences seemed fun, Bastodkar reflects on some of the more challenging and surprising aspects of taking a Swiss semester abroad. “I didn’t expect it’d be tough and challenging… the hiking was ridiculously hard, and I realized I had a fear of heights.” She also adds the impact on her wellbeing, “My mental health was pretty much badly impacted because I was struggling every day… I would be crying every single night.” Although Bastodkar was heavily impacted by her trip, she says “it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.”
Nwokocha says that the trip pushed him to try different things: “You’re in a completely different environment, and around different people… you get pushed out of your comfort zone a lot. Whether it’s the activity, or meeting new people.” Bastodkar also encourages students wishing to do Swiss semester to keep an open mindset, adding, “I was really just scared to do stuff and I wasn’t pushing myself, but later on I started pushing myself. But if I pushed myself, in the beginning, I would have gotten a fuller experience.”