Vivien Pihlstrom ’25 describes semester abroad

January 27, 2023


Submitted by: Vivien Pihstrom

Vivien Pihlstrom and her friend Daisy pose in front of the cloud covered Thunersee Lake at sunset after taking the gondola up. Groups of 10-17 attended the different weekend trips.

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.”

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