Brit adjusts to plunge into international Geneva

When Michaelene Stack moved to Switzerland from England – for a job at the International School in Geneva – she found herself without friends and needing to brush up her French. Eight years on, the native of Scotland tells The Local how she adjusted to work at the world’s largest international school.

Brit adjusts to plunge into international Geneva

How did you end up in Geneva?

Before I moved to Geneva eight years ago I had jobs in universities, as well as in medical and environmental charities. At the time, I was working in fundraising and communications for a wildlife conservation trust in Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands. I blame my then sister-in-law for my decision to move. I was having breakfast at her house, reading The Sunday Times, when I saw an ad for a job as Director of Development at the International School in Geneva. Although I had moved between sectors, I came to the decision that I wanted to focus on core areas of development. 

Was it difficult to adjust?

When I arrived here, I was literally Billy No-Mates but people were very kind and helpful. Having lived in France before, I don’t think I found Switzerland culturally daunting, and I soon learned the subtle difference between Suisse romande (the French-speaking districts of western Switzerland) and metropolitan France.

I’d done a French baccalaureate many years ago, but for the better part of 20 years the only time I spoke French was when I visited my sisters, who lived in France at the time. So although I claimed to know the language when I arrived, I’d never used French as a working language – and there’s a big difference.

One of the biggest challenges was adjusting to working in a bilingual institution. Here, we have meetings in which half of us will speak in English and the other half in French.

Was it easy finding somewhere to live?

Even though it was eight years ago, it was quite hard — and I don’t think it’s any easier today. Housing in Geneva remains at a premium. When families move here, they normally have two preoccupations: finding school places for their children and finding suitable accommodation. Quite often, we find that their choice of school will be largely influenced by where they can find accommodation. 

Personally, I was very lucky when I came here. I ended up in a delightful villa in Corsier by the lake. I feel so spoiled by the surroundings here in Geneva.

Tell us about the school and its ethos.

This year the school celebrates its 88th birthday and currently has around 4,300 students and three campuses: La Grande Boissière, La Châtaigneraie, and Campus des Nations.

In terms of ethos, it is a very value-driven school. We insist heavily on the multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith aspects of the institution and the fact that we have a shared civic responsibility — a concept that’s very in tune with Geneva as a whole. We are non-selective and cater for both Swiss children and the children of multi-national employees.

With over 90 nationalities in the school, we have to be very mindful of the fact that for a large part of our student/parent population, English or French might not necessarily be their mother tongue. You end up with a very heterogeneous mix of interests.

How would you describe Geneva?

I’ve always thought of Geneva as a series of Venn diagrams made up of Genevan and expat families. They may have different backgrounds but there are also considerable points of overlap.

The International School is probably the biggest example of this overlap. Every year, we hold a school fête on each campus. People from all backgrounds and groups participate and there are around 50 different food stands.

Geneva also offers an exceptional living environment and quality of life. On the one hand, you have the magnificent lake and, on the other, magnificent mountains. So it’s fantastic if you like the outdoors. Some people may complain that Geneva is a bit too quiet in comparison with Madrid, London and Paris, but these cities aren’t too far away.  

What do you love most about your job?

I love the diversity – no day is ever the same. Just the other week, construction began on a new art centre for our Grande Boissière campus and the construction company came into the classroom to talk to our primary school children about the project. You wouldn’t believe how excited all the children were about having a crane driver come and talk to them.

In short, my job involves just about anything from introducing crane drivers to five-year-olds to trying to get major multinational companies to invest in the school.

And finally, do you have any advice for anyone moving to Switzerland?

I often tell families sending their children to the school that it’s definitely worth learning French because you’ll have a much richer experience of living here.

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