When I travelled to Zurich last September the idea of going on year abroad seemed pretty daunting. The first week was dominated by administration work and the adaption process into a different culture and city was initially a bit rocky. Nothing too bad: just little things you always have to bear in mind, like cars and trams coming the opposite direction from what you’re used to; I was genuinely inches away from getting run over in my very first week when a friend pulled me from behind a tram after I walked into the road looking the wrong way. Street signs and instructions are obviously also written in a language that you’re not familiar with so that’s another thing to look out for.
There are also cultural differences that are quite interesting and will take you aback at first, like the habit people have of beating the table with their knuckles at the end of every lecture or seminar that I didn’t understand at first. Because I had to meet a lot of people over that first week to get documents signed and to gain access to my travel card and other useful things, I had to start every conversation by asking in poor German whether or not the other person spoke English, to which the answer was invariably, and fortunately, yes. Doing this constantly ends up making you feel guilty, or so I found, because you find yourself going into a foreign country and yet it’s everyone else who ends up adapting to your language rather than vice versa, as should probably be the case. The two week German course I took at the start of the semester definitely helped in this regard, so I would definitely recommend to everyone doing a year abroad to at least learn a little of the language before undertaking your journey.
After these first few hectic weeks, things started to settle down. My accommodation consists entirely of exchange students so the amount of direct access I actually got to Swiss people was pretty limited, except at university events and in class. I think while this initial transition period can be a little tricky and there are moments where you do feel lost in a different city, as long as you make an effort to meet new people and try new things this feeling will dissipate before too long which should lead to a more fulfilling experience.
Another important thing to remember is that people are not trying to make you feel uncomfortable: most people who you end up meeting on a year abroad are incredibly helpful and nice, and will actively try and assist you in any way they can, so not being reluctant to ask questions, whether they be about the local culture or the functioning of the university, is important. This is especially important for certain subjects where expectations are different, for example while writing essays in my English courses it can be quite confusing at first to try and figure out which format to reference in, how to formulate the introduction, etc. These questions won’t usually be addressed in class because the students you’re with will usually have been at this university for a longer time, and so will already know the answers; it’s probably for the best to ask the questions yourself (and remember that there’s no such thing as a bad question and that the lecturers will usually be willing to explain the process).
Going out at night is another thing that’s obviously part of the student lifestyle, and that you’ll probably be doing a lot of on a year abroad. Going out in a foreign country with a different culture can be strange at first, although Zurich isn’t wildly unlike London from that point of view. One recommendation is that at least for the first few times you go out, make sure to stick together in large groups rather going alone or arriving at a venue at staggered times. It’s also probably worth asking someone who really knows the city/area about the best places to head to.
Going on a year abroad isn’t a decision to be taken particularly lightly: it’s a pretty big financial investment and means relocating to a completely different part of the world, away from everyone that you know. However, it’s completely worth it if you approach it with the right mind-set, and I can only recommend it absolutely. The aforementioned challenges of integrating a new culture are easily surmounted and overall the experience should be a really positive one.
This whole experience was rendered a lot easier by the Turing fund grant scheme, that allowed me to have a lot more comfort and be a lot less worried about money while abroad. It really does offer a safety net and feeling of security especially when abroad expenses can stack up pretty quickly. It’s also really nice to be able to experience new things that cost more, for instance going ice skating in Zurich (see pictures) or staying in a chalet in the alps with your friends, both of which I wouldn’t have been able to do without the fund.
Clément is currently studying abroad at the Universität Zürich.