The Independent Study Project (ISP) is a characteristic element of SIT study abroad programs. During the last third of the semester here, students had the opportunity to conduct primary qualitative research on a topic of their choice. To me, this research period was the most rewarding aspect of my time abroad for a few reasons. Primarily, choosing my own topic, selecting and interviewing renowned experts, and having a flexible schedule to conduct this research were the most enabling elements. Given that this project serves as my senior capstone project, I also devoted a great deal of energy to having my topic be comprehensive and specific to my interdisciplinary interests. Because the specific program I pursued is based in the highly international arena of Geneva, I had the opportunity of interviewing experts who work at the United Nations, World Health Organization, the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, and many other highly esteemed institutions based in Switzerland. Making professional connections and building my network were two wonderful outcomes of this research. My favorite interview opportunity came up through a reference from my research advisor. For this one, I was able to travel to a beautiful town called Crans Montana in the middle of a Swiss valley. This was my first time conducting formal interviews for research purposes and I’m pretty sure I set high expectations for future research because of these amazing opportunities to explore. And while there are opportunities to conduct independent research back in the States, there was great balance of structure, guidance, and freedom during the ISP period, not to mention the centrality of expertise in Switzerland. All in all, the opportunities that have emerged this semester for both personal and career development were, at minimum, incredible. There were many challenges along the way including but not limited to non-response and balancing recreational time. Now that I’m on the other side and have presented my research to my peers and advisors, I have important lessons that I will be taking forward into my career as an aspiring physician.
Last week, we submitted our big independent study projects and I can safely say everyone in our program looks incredibly relieved. The whole month of November was dedicated to research and it has finally come to an end. While the whole process was very rewarding, it was a new kind of challenge I hadn’t had to navigate before. While abroad, the academics have not been as rigorous as they are on campus. I found that balancing independent research and this flexible time period was a challenge that resembled student life for me back at GW. This time frame pushed me even harder to establish a temporary balance between research and leisure because there was still so much I wanted to see and didn’t get to earlier in the semester. Now, we’re in our presentation period and learning about each other’s presentations. It’s truly incredible to hear from my peers researching and pursuing their passions. I’m very pleased with the way the directors of this program organized presentation period because it allows students to showcase their wealth of knowledge on incredibly interesting topics that I would have not otherwise discovered. This does, however, mean that the program is coming to an end.
Saying goodbye to Switzerland is definitely going to be bittersweet. I’ve had an amazing semester abroad here and feel like I’ve made the most of all this country has to offer. Sure, the cost of living here is astronomically high, but there are ways to make it work while still having fun. I have met incredible people abroad and I look forward to keeping in touch and planning visits with them. The bonds we have been able to establish on such a short timeline are at a level I did not anticipate coming into the program. Traveling and studying abroad with my friends has only brought us closer and I can only wish everyone has the privilege of experiencing the wonders of friendship abroad. That’s not to say I don’t miss my friends back home. I think of them every day and we have kept in touch as much as our schedules have allowed. We count down the days and brainstorm all the things we’re going to do when I return.
It feels like it was just yesterday that I was meeting other students at the Nyon hostel for our orientation. Yet here we are… traveling, singing, dancing, laughing with and supporting each other. Soon, we will go our separate ways and back to the lives we temporarily left. I am both excited and nervous for the transitions of readjusting to DC life. One thing’s for sure though and that is I am forever grateful for the love, mentorship, support, and friendship during my time abroad and seek to carry these warm memories wherever my next adventures take me.
As a non-French speaker, I picked up on some interesting new phrases during my first few weeks here. Now that we only have 2 weeks left in the semester, I can safely say that I’ve adopted the following into my everyday vocabulary:
C’est chou! = It’s cute!
In beginner French, I learned that “chou” means cabbage. Before learning about this, I didn’t question it. Then I started to wonder why people were calling things “cabbage". I still don’t know the origin of it but I guess it’s just slang for “That’s cute!” or “S/he is so cute!” Now I say it all the time... but mostly as a joke because it still doesn’t make sense to me.
Cou cou = My dear
French is such a melodic language. The way people say Cou Cou actually sounds like a stereotypical cuckoo clock but it’s much cuter coming from a person. Usually elders say it to younger people, or, at least those are the contexts in which I’ve heard it said to me or to others. Just cute Swiss things…
Ouais = Yeah
Basically, Ouais is the english equivalent of “yeah” (oui is “yes”). After a while of me knowing what it meant I began to feel super formal saying oui. You could also say that I started saying it to sound cool but that’s up to you to decide… 🙂
I think my favorite part about studying abroad here in Switzerland is the SwissPass that SIT gives us at the beginning of the semester. This beautiful red piece of plastic grants us students the privilege to hop on and off buses and trains with ease. It also gets us 50% off on some cable cars and ski lifts. Having this mobility has made this whole semester such a breeze and an incredible adventure. And while Swiss efficiency was just a rumor to me before I got here, I can personally confirm that it is real and it truly is a marvel. The SBB train has its own app and gives you directions on how to get to your desired destination. If for some reason there is a problem, it usually keeps up with delays and notifies users of construction sites that could be an issue. Quite frankly, I will probably miss this aspect of study abroad the most. I’m not sure I have readied myself to return to the organized chaos of DC traffic but I guess I should get on that...
My homestay is merely a 6 minute bus ride from centre ville, or central Nyon, where the train station is. From Nyon, there is a 15 minute train ride to Geneva and the airport or I could head east and go anywhere in Switzerland. Now that we are in our Independent Study Project (ISP) research period, we have a lot more flexibility with our schedules to go explore this picturesque country. The trains are also very well-maintained and equipped with water closets (WC), aka restrooms, restaurant cars, wifi (some), and outlets. It’s truly a luxury. Just this past weekend, my friends and I took a day trip to Lucern, a true gem, and we were able to get work done on the quiet car and still enjoy our day out. I guess we too are becoming Swiss efficient?
Although the cost of the SwissPass was factored into the tuition, I’m still very grateful that it exists and that SIT decided to provide it to its students because that was not the case merely three years ago. I cannot imagine how much of a hassle it would be to purchase a ticket every time we students wanted to go explore a new part of Switzerland. We are a really lucky bunch!
21 Oct 2018
I know many GW students still have midterms going on right now… but this week we have our final exams! So soon, right? Yet here I am sitting in one of the few places open on Sunday in Switzerland, relaxing and doing a bit of work for this week. Something special about SIT is the way our directors design the academic schedule for this specific program. The framework of our semester includes 2 months of classroom time and excursions. The latter half of our time here includes a designated research period and a few french lessons.
Sipping tea and writing my Local Case Study paper in Geneva. Not much is open on Sundays here!
As a senior, I have become well-accustomed to studying and taking tests at GW and, to some extent, I find them to be predictable based on the types of questions I have been asked in the past (this is department-specific, of course). Because we only have midterms and finals here in Switzerland, adjusting to this style of testing has been a large portion of the acclimation to life abroad. However, we students quickly learned that these exams and the professors who created them do not intend to trick us or foster self-doubt.
I think I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post but our mentors here also encourage us to learn, process, and apply the concepts we’ve learned to real-world circumstances particularly as they pertain to extremely vulnerable communities in conflict zones or areas affected by natural disaster and/or political turmoil. Additionally, every time we have a guest lecturer or visit a pre-eminent organization there is, quite predictably, a discussion about career and personal development in the field of global health and how each expert has taken a different route to work in this highly integrated discipline. Thus, the way our exams are designed allows us to integrate our notes and assemble a narrative about such integration and why this approach allows humanitarian aid and development policy to be as complex as it is. I also believe that it would be unjustified for our professors to expect us to regurgitate this high-volume of information and still experience the Swiss lifestyle, void of anxious energy particularly in the classroom setting. I have thoroughly benefitted from this style of teaching/ learning and wish the American college education that we're exposed to resembled this. It took me some time to understand that these assessments (papers included) are not intended to deplete students of energy; they are meant to be informative, engaging, enjoyable and most of all enriching.
International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Our lecture here pertained to Child Labor and the role of global governance in addressing hazardous and inhumane working conditions for children.
United Nations event entitled “Where will we go?” about the implications of climate change on humanitarian aid. UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland.
Me at the Doctor’s Without Borders office in Geneva, Switzerland. As an aspiring physician, I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to have our lecture at MSF.
Taken outside of our lecture hall at the UN Environmental Program office in Geneva, Switzerland
08 October 2018
From September 28th to October 6th, I traveled to Morocco with my program for our semester excursion. We spent the first two days in the capital of Rabat where we heard from individuals working with the Ministry of Health, the International Office of Migration (IOM), and many NGOs to learn about the Moroccan health system and evident health disparities. After traveling to central Marrakech and getting lost in the maze of the Medina at Jemma El Fna, we learned about the current king’s initiatives to augment women’s empowerment and health care access to vulnerable populations like disabled children and cancer patients. On Monday, we proceeded to spend a great deal of our trip staying with homestay families in a rural village in Marrakech. There, groups of 5-6 students were assigned different homestay families and I firmly believe this experience allowed me to feel a stronger pulse of Morocco.
The view from the balcony of my homestay family’s house overlooking the Atlas mountains
The homestay element of this excursion consisted of dining, dancing, playing, conversing, and adapting, and most importantly being open-minded about temporarily living a much lower standard of living compared to Switzerland and the United States. Despite this, the architecture, design, music, dance, and food radiated in vibrant colors, sounds, and flavors left me in a state of bliss multiple times throughout our week in El Maghreb. Over the course of the week I reminded myself embrace rural Moroccan culture and to make the most of such a valuable experience while being conscientious of my/our imprint on a pre-existing community.
Me (left) and my host mom Khadija (right)
Situated in the Atlas mountains, this small village of Tanahout exhibits low levels of light pollution that allowed us to stargaze and enjoy the peace and serenity that is indubitably one of the perks of rural life in this middle-income country. After reflecting a bit, I realized that my life’s travels so far have exposed me to either extremely impoverished settings in developing countries around the world or relatively very well-off national infrastructure in many European and North American regions. Learning about the urban-rural divide in this context was truly unique and has definitely broadened the scope of my studies of global health. When it came to understanding Moroccan health care, education, transportation, and many more means of upward social mobility, social disparities took on a deeper meaning. For instance, the role of tourism even in this rural village sustains so many families, including the ones we lived with for a few days. Although there is much pushback against the pitfalls of tourism in such fragile communities, many of our host families embraced inevtaible cultural compromises because it set meals on the table and paid for medical bills that are not covered by their basic health insurance.
Kids of the village being silly after school
My friends and I made connections of a lifetime with Moroccan cuisine, art, and most of all the people. Coming back to Switzerland, I see a stark contrast in the cultural spirit of each country and long to drink sweet mint tea and dance in the golden sunset over the Atlas mountains with my family in Marrakech.
Sunset over the Atlas Mountains
30 September 2018
At the famous Matterhorn in Zermatt || 22 September 2018
There are five courses offered through the Global Health and Development Policy Program here in Geneva, Switzerland. They are Perspectives on Global Health (PGH) , Global Health and Development (DPH), Research Methods & Ethics (RME), French, and the Independent Study Project (ISP). With a total of 16 credits, I came into the program expecting the workload to keep me busy. While this overwhelmed me initially, given the new adjustments to lifestyle, culture, new social environment, and the homestay experience, I can safely say that I experienced my first month in Switzerland with an appreciable balance of academics and personal development.
Along with the advice, mentorship and guidance of the academic directors here, this balance was achieved with an active mindset to dedicate time to other activities while not getting too distracted. Our academic directors frequently remind us that the point of the academics here is to understand and internalize, not merely to learn. I have come to appreciate that the process of understanding requires immersion at a level I have not seen before. During the first few days of the program, our directors also underscored that the Swiss way is slow but somehow also efficient. While the Swiss transit systems are, on average, annoyingly punctual, tasks throughout the day and the general mentality about home life and education are taken seriously enough to allow for both self-enrichment and self-care.
Prior to my arrival in Switzerland, I was very accustomed to my comprehensive, work-intensive, heavy focus on the sciences and humanities at GW. Here, our guest lecturers work at the United Nations, World Health Organization, International Office of Migration, International Committee of the Red Cross, and many, many more premier international organizations. We are provided with the opportunities to hear from them and visit their home institutions to directly engage with their work environment. It really is one of my favorite elements of this program, especially in the global health capital of the world. And while the abundance of expertise has been so inspiring and enriching, the energy drain and stress I usually associate with school is much, much less. This has provided me many opportunities to pursue individual research and make new connections with experts simply because I want to know more about the subject.
Executive Board Room, WHO || 24 September 2018
Right now, we are on our excursion to Morocco for 8 days exploring the country’s health systems and the role of global governance. In addition to hearing from experts at a much higher level, we students have the opportunity to live with host families here for 4 days and learn about rural lifestyles, health-seeking behaviors, and community development. We have only been here 2 days and I can already feel my wealth of knowledge growing!
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me during my time abroad is not that the courses of a complex global health system were going to be enriching, but that the level of immersion built into the framework of the program has far exceeded my expectations.
Rabat, Morocco || 29 September 2018
26 Aug 2018
I have been in Switzerland for two weeks and I still cannot believe I am here. After landing in Zürich, meeting up with extended family, going on my first breathtaking hike in Switzerland, and beginning to acclimate to a new life here, orientation snuck up on me!
28 Aug 2018
The program I am pursuing in Switzerland is the Global Health and Development Policy program through the School for International Training (SIT). There are about 30 students, myself included, who have left their families, friends, and universities behind to experience historically renowned diplomacy, study global governance in public health, hike in the Swiss Alps, and embrace Swiss culture through the homestay experience. What better way to break the ice with new classmates than to randomly room with 5 students for a few days. At the Nyon Hostel, I began to navigate whatever expectations I had about meeting new people, knowing with certainty that we had at least one similar interest: global health.
Although I have many, many years of Spanish in my back pocket, my proficiency in French is quite limited (but growing quickly!). And because our program is actually based in Nyon with many excursions to Geneva (a very international town), my new friends and I have been thrown into rather homogeneous French culture. I learned very quickly here that Switzerland is both land-locked and incredibly culturally diverse. With Austria, Germany, Italy, and France bordering this tiny country of around 8.4 million, the geopolitical boundaries crisply define language prevalence. The good news is that before arriving, this program provided access to and highly encouraged students to utilize the online self-learning language platform (Màngo Languages) for French to at least be able to engage minimally. With two weeks of Màngo at the tip of my tongue I was pleasantly surprised to be able to converse with the waiter at our first dinner as a group in Switzerland. With French as a required course here, I have no doubt the language barrier will be reduced (and so will my many faux pas…)
The first Saturday after our orientation each student received her/his homestay family. We all nervously awaited our host parent(s) arrival to the hostel to retrieve us. Little by little, the students went off to join new families and begin to settle in. The days leading up to this moment were filled with butterflies and excitement. Now, I’m two weeks in, quite settled into my new home. My current host mom has been with SIT for many years and has warmly welcomed yet another student. Isabelle is a loving, caring, inquisitive host mom and impeccable chef. As a vegan, I can safely say that being surrounded by some of the world’s finest cheese and chocolate gets quite tempting but Isabelle has graciously compensated for this. So far she has cooked me lovely meals with fresh bread, pasta, lentils, homemade crepes, and vegetables/fruits grown in her garden. In her two-bedroom flat, my room overlooks the sunsets over a vineyard and the Swiss Alps. It sounds like a fairytale and it looks like one too. I am very grateful for having been placed here! After settling in over the weekend, I gradually prepared for upcoming classes.
Of course there are challenges that come with studying abroad, particularly as a senior! With most of my college years behind me, so too is all that tuition. Switzerland is not exactly the most affordable country to live in, but we students have been navigating this financial challenge with increasing mastery. With a bit of budgeting and exploring the most economical means of spreading out costs for food and travel, my friends and I hope to maximize the Swiss experience and minimize our spending as much as possible. Beyond the necessary costs of a residency permit, visa paperwork, and other required payments, being pennywise has actually been a fun challenge to take on here because it has really pushed us to explore as many options as possible before deciding on one activity, restaurant, means of transportation and/or accommodation. In my humble opinion, he Swiss transit system is quite foolproof and so incredibly accessible. One of the biggest perks of this program is that we each receive a SwissPass that takes us on virtually all buses, trains, and boats within Switzerland (and even to our neighbor, France!). Recently introduced to the program, the SwissPass has definitely made my commute and Swiss explorations a breeze. In fact, the first two weekends of this semester you could find me hiking in the Alps without having to pay extra to get there from our homes. It really is a special treat.
Looking ahead, I have midterms this week and our excursion to Morocco for 8 days at the end of this month. There, we will be conducting field studies at rural health clinics and learning more about their infrastructure and development model. The directors of this program really have planned an incredible few months for us and I look forward to learning more about humanitarian aid, health as a human right, the role of global governance, and plenty more in the weeks/months to come. After a relaxing weekend trip to Interlaken and a spectacular hike I am ready to take on week 3!
And just like that 3.5 months flew by! Today I write this post in the post-apocalyptic danger zone that is known as my room. I am currently packing up all of my stuff because my program is officially over and tomorrow I leave for Italy! This post will be dedicated to how I spent my last days in Switzerland, a general reflection on the program, and how I am saying goodbye.
This past week has been crazy. On Wednesday one of my best friends in my program and I went to Zermatt, Switzerland to see the Matterhorn! The Matterhorn is Switzerland’s pride and joy. It’s one of the largest mountains in Europe and has many roller coasters named after it. It’s huge. Like. 14,692 ft. Crazy. Anyway, it only took a little more than three hours to get to Zermatt by train. On our way there we passed many a snowy scene in the Swiss countryside. My friend said that it looked as if we were riding through a black and white photograph because the snow contrasted with the darkness of the mountains and darkness of the farms. Once we got to Zermatt, a lovely and quaint mountain village, we walked around. Thank goodness all the shops were closed for their lunch break, or else we would have done some damage to our alredy suffering bank accounts. We then took the Gornergrat train up a mountain so that we could get a better view of the Matterhorn. Problem was, it was snowing! Like an actual blizzard. So we couldn’t see anything when we got up there, at 10,135 ft. It was just a sheet of white! Oh well, my friend had never seen snow before so we got to play in it.
The attacks in Paris on November 13th, 2014 leave me speechless. I remember sitting in my bed in Commugny, Switzerland when I got a CNN push notification about a shooting in Paris that left a handful of people either dead or injured. Immediately, I shared it with close friends in my program just in case they were there or they knew someone there. As news updates came and went and the number of killed increased and increased, I could not fathom the kinds of terror and horror that were spreading throughout the same city I had visited just two months ago.