Alex studies Law with Business here at Essex and spent a year abroad studying at University Bern, in Switzerland. Here is what Alex had to say…

Why did you choose to go to Switzerland?

To be completely honest, Switzerland wasn't my first choice for studying abroad—it was my second. Unfortunately, due to COVID, my initial plan fell through. However, looking back now, I couldn't be more grateful that it did. My time in Switzerland turned out to be the most remarkable experience of my studies thus far.

Initially, I had included Switzerland on my list primarily to enhance my language skills. I am obviously fluent in English, but I also have a high knowledge of German, with a basic understanding of French. Therefore, I thought Switzerland would be the ideal destination for linguistic growth. But boy, was I wrong! Swiss-German, particularly the Bernese dialect, bears little resemblance to the German language beyond its name. After spending nine months immersed in Swiss culture, making friends and studying at a local university, I can proudly say that my only grasp of Bernese Swiss-German is limited to the word "Äuä" In my defence, this one word is all you need as it encompasses a wide range of meanings. Depending on the intonation and context, it could mean anything from "yes/no" to "huh/what/really?/maybe/how?/when?/I don't know/of course" and practically any other expression one might need.

street in Switzerland lined with buildings and flags

What are the differences between Swiss University and Essex?

It is no secret that both the UK and Switzerland have the highest education standards in the world, and I can personally vouch for that. However, I must emphasize that the academic standards and expectations at the University of Bern in Switzerland surpass those of the UK. One of the most significant differences lies in the examination methods. In Switzerland, essay writing is not as common. Exams are either oral or in a written format, occasionally allowing the use of reference materials. Rather than solely testing memorization, the emphasis is placed on your ability to locate and utilize relevant information. However, this can be a double-edged sword, as some who are unprepared may struggle, given the limited time available for you to look through your materials.

One interesting aspect is the course selection. In Switzerland, you can enroll in as many courses as you want. You can access all the lectures, materials, and sometimes even recorded podcasts from various faculties, allowing you to review content you may have missed or didn‘t fully comprehend. At the end of the academic year, you have the option to register for exams specifically related to the courses you wish to obtain credits for. For instance, I undertook courses to fulfill my ECTS requirements, but I also enrolled in additional courses to gain access to their lecture materials, PowerPoint presentations, readings, and more. Even though I didn‘t sit for exams in those additional courses since I had fulfilled my credit load, I still have valuable lecture materials spanning various areas of law and economics.

green field with mountain behind it in Switzerland

What were the best moments from your time in Switzerland?

Undoubtedly, the Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot holds the top spot in my book. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been selected to represent the University of Bern in this event. The opportunity to participate in the Vis Moot would have been remarkable in itself, but it surpassed my expectations by allowing me to create lifelong friendships. Starting with my teammates and supportive coaches to the exceptional people I met from teams from around the world, the experience was nothing short of amazing.

The Vis Moot also provided me with the chance to explore Switzerland and various parts of Europe during the pre-moots, all leading up to the final held in Vienna. It created memories, deepened my knowledge in the field, and had the privilege of meeting and engaging with experts in the area of international commercial arbitration.

students in classroom

However, I must mention that swimming in the Aare River comes in a close second. Securing your belongings inside an Aare-bag, sealing it shut, and using it as a flotation device while allowing the strong current to carry you several kilometers downstream is an experience that should not be missed. It‘s a unique adventure that probably best captures the life essence of Switzerland.

What was your favourite local meal?

Ah, this is a hard one to answer, as I cook 99 % of my meals myself, because I enjoy cooking – it has nothing to do with Swiss prices and me not trying to go bankrupt. However, if I were to choose a dish that holds a special place in my heart, it would undoubtedly be Fondue. Fondue creates a special vibe and an interactive dining experience. Its a large cauldron-like pot, where my Swiss friends melt a massive block of preferably super expensive high-quality cheese and combine it with a bottle of white wine. Once the cheese is fully melted and blended, the pot is placed at the center of the table, and each person is equipped with a peculiar-looking long fork. The task at hand is to skewer a piece of bread and immerse it into the pot of cheese-wine goodness. However, I must warn you, if someone accidentally drops their bread into the pot, they‘re either buying a round of drinks for everyone or entertaining the group with a song.

While Fondue is undoubtedly an excellent choice for gatherings and creating a festive vibe, it is not something I could eat frequently. Therefore, I would opt for my favourite local sweet treat—the Berner Mandelbärli, or Bernese Almond Bears, by a longshot. These sweets are unique to Bern and are shaped like little bears, inspired by the city‘s coat of arms featuring a bear. They come in a variety of flavours, and my personal favourite is the pineapple one. I must admit they are quite expensive, but they are absolutely worth it.

Did you feel any different after your year abroad?

This is a difficult question to answer, as my immediate response would be „no.“ However, upon reflection, the answer becomes undeniably „yes.“ I feel much richer than before – obviously I mean richer in experiences, certainly not in my bank account, after all – Switzerland. This newfound wealth is not limited to academic knowledge, although that undoubtedly played a significant role. It extends to self-discovery, gaining a clearer sense of my aspirations, understanding my own limitations, and recognizing the extent of my capabilities and achievements.

The conclusion of my year abroad was bittersweet, to say the least. On one hand, I was happy to have completed all my exams, studies, and hard work. On the other hand, I couldn‘t help but feel a quite sad as I have finished the best nine months of my academic journey thus far. Switzerland, particularly Bern, has embedded itself deeply within my heart, and it is a place I will forever cherish and hold dear.

group of students stood outside University of Bern, Switzerland

What would your advice be to anyone considering studying in another country?

Go for it! Don't worry about the idea of losing a year of time, as the time will certainly not become lost. In reality, a year passes by in the blink of an eye. Trust me when I say that the experiences and growth you will gain in that year will far outweigh any perceived loss. It will be a year filled with valuable lessons, memorable moments, and personal development that you may have never encountered before. 


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