Students reminisce study abroad program in Switzerland

Charlotte Tomlin

S

ophomore William Custard bikes 80 miles up and down and across the Bernese Oberland mountain range, flying across the Switzerland countryside, passing beautiful sights and cows and enjoying time with his classmates. All while on a field trip, just another day as a high school student.

Switzerland boasts the world’s best chocolate, fondue, skiing, watches, cheese and, naturally, Swiss Army Knives. It also contains an immersive high school experience, where students learn geology, art history and how to live without a phone for a whole semester.

Sophomores Wheeler Wood, Will Grogan and William Custard had the opportunity to study abroad for the fall semester through the Swiss Semester program. For Wood, the most exciting part was meeting so many people.

“Even in three months, I met some of my best friends, Wood said. “It’s an experience that’s hard to get anywhere else.”

Swiss Semester is the official name of the program, although students affectionately refer to it as “Swiss.”

The program, which aside from academics also offers trips across Europe, hiking and skiing in the Swiss Alps, is located in Zermatt, and is run by the Robbins family, who have run the program since its founding in 1986. Swiss Semester is open to students from schools across the U.S.

“There’s so many good parts of Swiss [Semester],” Grogan said. “Skiing every day and hiking was absolutely amazing. Just being outside every day was such an amazing experience in itself.”

Six classes a day, and an outdoor activity in the mountains —geology lab, climbing, skiing, and hiking— make up an average day in Zermatt. However, some days the students travel to different areas of Europe including Annecy, Venice, Padua, Vicenza, Bernese Oberland and Geneva.

“It was so surreal to see what we’ve been studying up close,” Grogan said. “I mean, studying pieces of artwork in art history and then seeing them in real life in Venice, and climbing a mountain that you just learned the formation of in geology, it was astonishing.”

But in addition to being exposed to museums, renowned artwork and nature, more life-changing experiences came from the close relationships formed with other students.

“Because there are so many people from so many different places, you really learn so much about different parts of the country,” Wood said. “For example, [ESD] doesn’t have to wear masks to school, but some of my friends in other parts of the country still have online school.”

Wood and Grogan both agreed that classmates from other parts of the U.S. taught them how to adapt to different norms.

“It really shows how big America is and how different everyone’s ideologies are,” Grogan said. “You hear about different social dynamics, and you learn how to respect different social norms. Like, some things are different here than in the Northeast or in the West, [or] in California. You learn how to be pretty restrictive in how you speak to people on a personal level. I think you learn to be a little more sensitive, which is kind of nice.”

The transition back into Texas life, which included the return to school for the spring semester, has been challenging at times for both Grogan and Wood.

“It’s hard to get back into the routine just because there are so many more people [at ESD] then there were at Swiss [Semester],” Wood said. “You’re not with the same group of people all the time, anymore. You have to really try to make plans with people [in Dallas], whereas in Switzerland, you don’t really have to.”

Academically, the GPA from Swiss Semester doesn’t transfer over to ESD transcripts, which has come as a relief for Grogan and Wood. However, course credits do transfer over, so students don’t have to worry about having to take a class twice. 

“[Swiss Semester] is really hard,” Grogan said. “You go into it knowing your grades are going to drop, which is a sacrifice of sorts, but Swiss [Semester] is meant to challenge you. I mean, we had to write a 29 page art history paper by hand.”

Junior Olivia DeYoung went to Swiss Semester in 2020, and returned to ESD with a new outlook on life. 

 “It was definitely a shift academically, as I was not used to the lecture-type classes,” DeYoung said. “We spent most of the hours outside moving and moving around in Switzerland. It was more of a difficult culture shock, and it was hard for me to take back all the stressors that I didn’t have in Switzerland. Some people don’t consider Swiss Semester because they fear they will have a hard time acclimating back with friends, but I truly had the opposite experience.” 

However, the transition has been made easier for Wood and Grogan with the visit of their friends from Swiss Semester.

“Our friends came and visited us on the second weekend of January,” Grogan said. “It was so great to see them, like bringing a little bit of Swiss [Semester] back home. And, some of our Swiss [Semester] friends actually live in Dallas, so we get to see them a lot.”

The experience of Swiss Semester remained relatively unchanged compared to years past, even in the middle of a pandemic.

“[Covid-19] did not affect us tremendously,” Grogan said. “We wore masks for the first couple weeks, and masks were pretty much required all across Switzerland. We followed through on our trips to Italy and France. However, our trip to the Christmas Markets in Northern Switzerland was canceled, which was a huge bummer.”

Wood, Grogan and Custard are aware that not everyone has this opportunity and appreciate they had the chance to study abroad. 

“Swiss Semester isn’t something that just happens every day,” Grogan said. “You have to work hard to get there, and it makes the experience all the more gratifying. The friendships that you make there last forever, and I’m so thankful that I got to experience it all with such an amazing group of people.”

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