Taking a step out of your comfort zone - a first hand account of a Round Square exchange
Joel Biro, Grade 8, Dover Campus
The Round Square exchange is a life changing opportunity. I went to the Inter-Community School (ICS) in Zurich, a city in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, for five weeks at the beginning of 2018. Initially, I asked to go to a school in Australia. I’m Australian, but I’ve never lived there, so I wanted to have the experience of going to school there. But it wasn’t culturally different to what I had experienced before. My parents and Mr Dura, the Round Square Coordinator, encouraged me to consider other options. Once I realised that this opportunity held a lot more than what I saw at first, I decided that I wanted to go to a different country and leave my comfort zone.
I left Singapore at the start of the Chinese New Year holiday, which coincided with the annual one-week ski break in Switzerland. When I arrived, I had a week there to settle in and adapt to the cold before school started. On my first day there, my host student took me to look around Zurich, and also introduced me to some of his friends. For the rest of the week before school started, we went skiing, hiking and did lots of other activities! My host family is really sporty and outdoorsy. The mum does a lot of long distance runs, whilst the dad is training to climb Everest, so he spent the weekends summiting mountains in the area.
I was pretty nervous about the first day of school. Apart from the few kids who I met the previous week, I didn’t know anyone. I was in a different country, in a different climate, and over 10, 000km away from my family. But that’s what was so amazing about the experience.
The size of the school was the first thing I noticed. ICS has less than 1000 kids, and Grade 8, the biggest grade in the school, has just 80 kids. It is made up of three buildings, one for exam studies, one for languages, and one for everything else. To get from the main building to the language block, it is a five-minute walk in freezing conditions. My biggest challenge was adapting to the very different climate in Switzerland. It got as cold as -12°C some days!
Although the school is small, there is something special about it. All the kids in each grade are very close, and know each other so well. They have strong connections and were very welcoming on my first day. I met some of my host student’s other friends, and throughout my time there, I got to know them quite well.
Another thing that I noticed was how much more casual it was compared to UWCSEA. There were no uniforms, and we were allowed to use our phones at break times. I found this interesting, but I also fount that there wasn’t as much stress among the students. Except maybe for when I had to join in the German and Spanish classes; I had no idea what they were talking about!
The variety of food was different and a bit more limited. At morning break, everyone would line up for cookies and muffins, but there wasn’t much else. At lunch, there was the choice of pasta, salad or a set meal. They weren’t cheap, a bowl of pasta costing six francs (SG$8), and the set meal eleven francs (SG$15). Some people would bring packed lunch and heat it up in the microwaves in the dining hall. I would always get the pasta, because it was the cheapest. After we ate, we would play soccer or basketball. My ears and hands would freeze but it was all part of the experience!
On the weekends, we would either go into the mountains or spend some time in Zurich. Whenever my host dad went training, I would go with him. Some of these hikes lasted for seven hours. It was physically challenging and unlike anything I’d done before, but it was really rewarding to see the amazing views from the top. We would hire sledges, and then sledge down to the bottom.
Switzerland had devastating storms a few weeks before I arrived, which had affected most areas of the country. On one of the hikes, the main path was closed due to the fallen trees, so we had to go up one of those hidden paths, which was pretty awesome. It was not on the map, so we had to use GPS and signs to navigate around. There were a lot of obstacles that we had to crawl through, which made it a real challenge and a great adventure. It was all about making the most of and trying to take advantage of all aspects of the experience.
My host family took me to try a lot of different Swiss foods as well. In the mountains, we had typical mountain food, such as schnitzel, which was so yummy. I also got to try fondue, and a few other Swiss specialities.
Time flew by so fast, and before I knew it, three weeks had gone. With just one week left, I really didn’t have any intention of coming back home so quickly. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to all of the friends that I had made, and I was certainly not ready to return to the heat and humidity of Singapore.
I called my parents to discuss the possibility of extending my stay for an extra week. They thought that it made sense to, given that I was already there. We spoke to Mr Dura and my Head of Grade to get their approval. Flights were changed and I ended up staying an extra week!
One of the most special memories of the trip was looking out the window in class, and seeing fresh snow falling. Living in Europe, it is something that people might take for granted; but for me growing up in the tropics, it was really cool.
Saying goodbye to my host family was difficult; they were the people who I had lived with for the past five weeks. We had hiked mountains, gone skiing, and explored Zurich together.
As the plane landed in Singapore, I could definitely feel some post-exchange sadness.
If you are considering a Round Square exchange, I would definitely recommend it. Choose to go somewhere that is out of your comfort zone; in another culture. Make the most of the opportunity whilst you’re there. Try new things, and take advantage of whatever you are offered. It is life changing.