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Round Square Exchange: "you won't regret going, but you might regret not going"

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Round Square Exchange: "you won't regret going, but you might regret not going"


The Round Square exchange program gives you an opportunity to be hosted by a host family or to board at a school in a different country. In return, you host the student that hosted you. Whilst hosting them, they attend the school together with you. In April 2016, I went to the Inter-Community School Zurich (ICSZ) in Switzerland for three weeks. My first big challenge was signing up. I was afraid of the things I would miss in UWCSEA while I was away and how I was going to struggle. My sister helped me make the final decision to go. She said, “you won’t regret going, but you might regret not going”.

After a few weeks of hurried planning and Skype calls with the host family, I set off to the airport. It was the end of Easter break and the Friday before school started. We had planned it so I had time to get over the 6 hour time difference and 12 hour flight, before I entered a completely new school. Even as I nervously gripped my passport and my luggage, I don’t think the full impact of what I was doing had sunk in. I was going to a country I had never been to before that spoke a different language, staying with a family I barely knew and had never met, and going to a new school all by myself. I was completely responsible for myself and had a freedom I never imagined I would have before university.

The size of the school was the first thing I noticed. I had never been to another school other than UWCSEA. ICSZ is the oldest international school in Zurich with 850 students, 50 in each grade and only around 12 per class. Compared to UWCSEA Dover, it was minuscule. In the three weeks I was there, I got to know everyone at least by face and even a few students in the years below and above. Getting around the campus was also very different, as there are only three buildings all set in different places. You had to cross roads and walk around 5 minutes to get to every lesson. One distinct but small difference I noticed was that in Singapore you get used to the constant roar of car engines and waiting for cars to let you through whilst in Zurich, for the students’ safety, pedestrians are the priority. It felt very strange to be able to walk so freely without thought.

One major change I enjoyed was the freedom the school allowed us to have. Here at UWCSEA, rules regarding the use of electronic devices are very strict. We aren’t allowed to carry our bags around, use phones and laptops unless the teachers instructs you to. In ICSZ you have the choice to bring in a laptop or use one of the school ones; they had chromebooks available. Phones were allowed to be used freely during class and no applications, such as Skype, were banned. With this freedom I thought people would be gaming or using their devices all throughout the school day but, with surprise, I realized that people didn't and used their laptops less frequently than we do. They didn’t need to use their phones as their friends were already there. With the restrictions we have, we use our phones whenever possible as it feels like a privilege. Use of bags was necessary in ICSZ as it would have been extremely inconvenient to carry our things by hand including the heavy jackets we put on to go outside in the cold.

The temperature varied throughout my stay and during each day. In the morning it would be as cold as 2°C and if it was sunny it would warm up to around 11°C. If you were walking around on a sunny day, it was comfortable to be in a t-shirt and jeans or with a thin jacket. When we walked from building to building, if it wasn't sunny it was very cold to walk around without a heavy jacket. I really enjoyed wearing fluffy and warm clothing. 

Another difference between ICSZ and UWCSEA were the choices in the canteen. Being brought up in UWCSEA, I thought it was normal to have a choice between Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, cafe snacks or a packed lunch. At ICSZ there were only really three choices, pasta, set lunch or packed lunch. Although the food was nice, it was also very expensive. A set meal of a veal sausage for example was 11 franks (around $16). Therefore most people brought in microwavable lunches. My host also did the same so I got to chose from the supermarket. Compared to Singapore there was a very large selection of frozen and microwavable food at a more reasonable price.  The canteen had two microwaves and there was always a queue to heat up your food. In UWC as it is so hot, most people don’t mind their food being room temperature but as it was so cold there it was nice to have a hot meal during the day.

Another major difference I noticed was in UWCSEA as we have two main canteens, most people will sit down and eat and then walk around back and forth between each canteen. In ICSZ the whole of the middle school fits into one hall with a single tray return in the centre. It was very prominently divided and I saw no mess like there is sometimes here at the stations. During sunny days, we could also go out into the school playground. 

It was easy for me to blend into school life as unlike UWCSEA they didn’t have any uniform. Also I realized that many people moved around a lot so several of the students had only been at ICSZ for as little as 3 months. They were all used to people coming and going so it was easy fitting into friendship groups as I imagined they changed around a lot. I hope to keep in touch with everyone and hope everyone at UWC will welcome Beatriz, my host when she comes over to Singapore next year, and give her an equally amazing experience as I had.

My biggest challenge was being brave enough to leave Singapore to try this out. Once I was there, learning German, French and attending different lessons were all new and unique experiences but with the help of my host and friends I did not find it too much a challenge. Before I left, I was extremely concerned with how I was going to catch up on all the work I would miss and all the activities I would be unable to attend. I was also unsure of how I would get along with my host and how I would fit into the school. It turned out better than I could have ever imagined. The last day of school was very emotional, within the three weeks I had made lots of different friends, including getting very close with my host and host parents. We made pacts to meet up again in a few years at a reunion but I felt the true distance between us and the shortness of my stay. When I came back to UWCSEA, the first two weeks were a bit of a struggle catching up and getting back to the rhythm of life here but all the extra work involved was worth the time I spent there. I wouldn’t hesitate do the whole thing again.

Whilst I was there I joined the volleyball team and I also got to do yoga with my host and host’s mum. I attended two Round Square sessions and participated in a bake sale. In ICSZ it was compulsory to join Round Square to apply for an exchange. I followed my host around most of the time but did a joint ukulele lesson with some other friends in the last week.

My favourite times there were the weekends and after school as my host family kindly took me around Switzerland. We were unlucky with rainy weather but I got a chance to go to Mount Titlis, sledding and playing in the snow, the Gruyere cheese factory and chocolate factory, a water park (Alpamare), mountains around the area as well as Lucerne, a glass blowing factory. I also enjoyed jogging in the cold, playing basketball after school and taking walks in the fields or by the lake with the sound of cow bells.

I really surprised myself by enjoying the German lessons. It was something completely new to me and the teacher was really nice and helpful. I was given a German beginners book and I hope to continue learning the language by myself.  I was motivated by everyone to learn as most people there could speak three to five languages fluently.

I think this experience changed me as I feel like I was able to to overcome and broaden my boundaries and I feel as though my limits have been extended. I have more trust in my abilities and I feel very proud of my responsibility and courage. I am also very pleased with the fact of how well I was able to enjoy the experience. I was worried I was going to get homesick as I missed my sister’s Leavers assembly and although I did get homesick on the day, I still pushed on and went out to enjoy the amazing opportunities I had been given. I feel as though I gained more skills on how to get along with all types of different people and the skills needed to make myself at home whilst respecting other people’s space. I can now feel comforted by the fact I know I can look after myself and can be trusted to make decisions. Overall this experience was the one of the most unique and amazing I think I will ever have. I hope I will remember the kindness and acceptance from all the people in Zurich.

Karina Walker
Grade 8

For more information about the Round Square Exchange Programme, please contact Tony Dura, the Middle School Round Square Coordinator.


13 Jun 2016
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