• James O'Leary

Switzerland - Starting University in the Alps!

Hiking the Alps with an international group from church. Nearby mountains already have snow in October!

You can read about how I got here in my previous article if you want, but I'm now studying at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. The Alps are kind of my backyard; I can mountain bike or surfskate (not as insanely high speed more curvy downhill longboard) to the train station on the way to and from my University. Snow has already been falling since September in the nearby ski areas.

Classes didn’t start here till the 14th of September - not because of COVID or anything, but because the middle of summer in Europe (vacation time for school and college) is August, not July. A week before classes started, there was a pre-semester math course I took part in, partly to get to meet new people, but partly because, even though I’ve excelled throughout high school, in Switzerland, I need all the help I can get!

Physics at the University of Zürich is no joke; after all, it is the same place Einstein got his Ph.D. and where Schroedinger (may or may not have) killed his cat. Most people here went to Swiss high school, which is a lot harder than American high school - they even write a miniature bachelor/master thesis called the Maturaarbeit. It kind of scares me when professors say things like - "oh look it’s just an integral, basic calculus - that's middle school math!" Luckily that turns out to be a mistranslation because in Switzerland middle and high school aren't separated. But still.

On weekdays I usually leave the house at 7 am, and don't come back till around 7 pm because of how hard it is (also my 1-hour exercise/commute each way). I'm super thankful that I get to go to University everyday in-person, and most of those 12 hours are with my new friends who turn out to be struggling through linear algebra just as much as I am (so maybe DoDEA school with APs was better than I thought). We wear masks indoors when on-the-go between classes or standing in-line at the cafeteria, but everything from lectures, study groups, sports, the cafeteria, and even both of the University's bars are open. I can even do homework while commuting on the gondola. Lectures are socially distanced, but study groups and eating in the cafeteria are not.

I haven't had much time for sports, but I'll definitely go snowboarding a lot this winter. Bars might be a surprise to you, but remember, this is Europe where you can drink non-hard alcohol (beer and wine) at 16. However, people are more responsible over here and don't have insane parties, just a few beers with the bros. I know that in America there are a lot more restrictions at most colleges, and I'm super thankful that things aren't as bad here with COVID - I imagine starting college all-online would be super lonely and sad, not to mention harder to actually learn stuff.

Sunrise before class at the University, ZOOM-on-the-go, and my professor firing a rifle in my first Physics lecture.

As far as friends go, before I moved here, I'd heard from people (and the internet) that the Swiss are kind of distant and unfriendly, but I've not found that to be the case. Probably because I don’t ever tell them to speak English or High German; I let them speak the local language and try my best to understand. Even though I’m fluent enough in high German, the German Swiss don't speak High German, but rather "Schwiizertüutsch," or Swiss German. This means that even native German speakers (not me) have trouble understanding them - it's not just a different accent (like British English), but there's a whole other vocabulary often borrowed from French (for example, Salü is hello- similar to French Salut). It’s almost like Dutch, which is similar to German but should be a whole other language in its own right. Well, the good news for me is that all classes at the University of Zürich are either in High German or English, but outside of class, everyone speaks Swiss German. Still, I can understand about half of the conversation, and with a little guesswork/context clues, almost everything. Plus, I only need to understand what's being said, because I can just respond back in High German.

Another way I'm learning Swiss German and also getting to meet new people is at the church I go to, called ICF. It's a chain of churches that started in Switzerland and spread throughout Europe. It also has mission churches in Asia and South America. It’s a big, contemporary international church with “celebrations” in Swiss, High German, and English. I usually go to the English one, then hang out with the other internationals over dinner, then head back to hear at least the sermon part in Swiss German.

Other than that there’s not that much Swiss German content out there because it’s (sadly) not an official language, which is too bad because it’s a lot less angry-sounding than High German. As for extracurriculars, student Christian groups compete with off-mountain snowboard training (plastic boards on trampolines and mats in gyms) and mountain biking. I’m thinking of going to each every other week.

Do I bike or surfskate to the train station?

Something you may have been wondering is, “isn’t Switzerland super expensive?" It is, even though I barely have to pay any tuition fees (in Switzerland, higher education is deemed a right, not a privilege). Due to living costs, I live almost an hour away by public transport from campus (dorms don’t exist in Europe). And forget going out to eat... but forget cooking because there’s no time for that... and also forget cheap stuff not sold at Swiss supermarkets like Ramen or fake cheese... I am “forced” to eat ”budget Migros," the cheapest brand but still super high quality (because otherwise it wouldn’t be sold in Switzerland). I eat Appenzeller cheese, salami, raw fruits and vegetables, and bread for dinner = low cost, tasty, no preparation beforehand. I then have my main meal at lunch in the “cafeteria," which would probably be at least a four-star restaurant in the U.S.

I could have been discouraged by my lack of understanding of high-level math, but instead, I see this as a way to make friends by having to stay afterward for study groups. I could insist on everyone speaking English and see Swiss German as a big joke and not even a real language, rather than embracing Swiss culture. I could complain about my commute instead of making it into an extreme sport triathlon of mountain biking, skateboarding, and parkour (ok the last one isn’t used that much because I have no skills there). I could be sad that everything is so expensive and I legally can’t work, rather than being grateful that my parents are able to pay for my living expenses. My life isn’t for everyone, but I love it! Also about that last point, no I’m not a “self-made man”- I haven’t worked harder than everyone else, and I don’t deserve anything more than the next person. I’ve just been blessed by God, and I hope I can multiply what he’s given me and help the world!

I hope everyone reading this in high school or whatnot can also learn to love their life too, even if you’re not in as cool of a place as Switzerland. It’s not about where you are or what you have, but what you do with it - in the present and in the future.

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