It’s surprising how much of your life you can fit into two large suitcases. This was it; after applying, being deferred admission, getting accepted, changing my mind, taking a gap year, finishing my gap year, here I was: ready to go to Columbia University.
Standing in my living room in Zug, I wondered whether I was prepared to move to New York City. I was not inexperienced at moving to new cultures, my family having left Russia when I was five years old, but I had been living in Zurich and Zug for 11 years, having attended the two largest international schools in Zurich from the third grade.
I was also aware I was leaving the familiarity of the international-school “bubble,” being thrust into the wilderness that is attending university in a metropolis.
The international-school bubble is neither unique to Switzerland nor a new phenomenon. Concerns about a cultural bubble created by international schools, which is said to close off children from their wider cultural setting, are ubiquitous across most international school environments.
For example, in Finland international school students are also said to have “very little contact with the local community”, according to one expert.
Currently, students all over the world are waiting for responses from universities in the United States, which typically release their admission results between December and March, bringing an end to the torturous process of university application.
International schools pride themselves on preparing students for these kind of processes, as many of these schools have excellent college counsellor programs dedicated to helping students choose the correct university and increase their chances of acceptance.
All of these advantages come, however, at a perceived cost. The more one becomes enmeshed in one’s international school and its extra-curricular activities, the harder it becomes to explore places, people and customs outside the sphere of the international-school bubble.
All these things I had in mind when I made my way to New York to start my higher education experience. But what I hadn't realized was that international school had prepared me better than I had anticipated.
From one bubble to another?
What I found at Columbia was a university that, while in New York City, was fairly far removed from many of the glamorous, iconic, and frankly, fun parts of the city.
While Morningside Heights, the neighbourhood where Columbia is located, neighbours the supposedly “rough part of town” that is Harlem, it is statistically safer than 94 percent of New York City.
Within a five block radius, one has access to cafes, pastry shops, restaurants, book stores, parks, bars and other sorts of nightlife. Safe to say, I found myself in another bubble.
Having little immediate incentive to go out of Morningside Heights, many students at Columbia prefer to stay in and around campus, both on weekdays and on weekends. Much of the socializing I imagined I would be doing in trendy Soho cafes and bars I can do without leaving the Columbia cul-de-sac.
This trend is so pronounced that during my orientation week, my student leader reminded me to “go downtown at least once a month” in order to not get a sense of cabin fever. If the idea of people having to be reminded to experience at least some of what New York has to offer seems absurd, trust me when I say it is exactly the kind of reminder many people at Columbia need.
So although I’d crossed the Atlantic, changed time zones, cultures, and meters for yards, I was in a whole new bubble, and I quickly realized I knew how to function in a place like this. I had been raised in just this kind of bubble. For this reason, I found it easier to adapt to the Columbia community than the people I knew who had come from public schools in New Jersey.
Ironically, growing up in a bubble made me quite adept at breaking out of said bubble. The international schools I had attended had stressed the importance of leaving the international sphere, of becoming more integrated in the local Swiss community.
These exact same skills are what made my transition into Columbia seemingly seamless: I felt comfortable at Columbia because of my experience at making the most of living in an isolated environment, but I was also aware I had to make the extra effort to experience the world outside the bubble.
International schools often come with the warning that it will leave students isolated, unaware of their surroundings and “not able to enjoy the beauty and the uniqueness of their host culture” (Elly). But in practice, the skills that I learned from overcoming these barriers are exactly the skills I utilized once I arrived at Columbia.
Granted, it is common for most undergraduate students to gradually widen their scope of interaction, and slowly push past the boundaries of the Columbia-bubble. A person does not miss out on the wonders of New York when they attend Columbia; rather, they require more time to ground themselves, to become aware of the possibilities available outside the Columbian sphere of influence. The bubble is permanent, but a person’s confinement to it is not.
International schools may indeed create an isolating bubble, but it is actually because of them that I am comfortable in leaving the bubble and going out of my way to experience more of what the wider community has to offer, be it in Zurich or New York City.
Alex Kuznetsov attends Columbia University where he is on the board of the Society of International Undergraduates.
Kuznetsov went to Inter-Community School Zurich from 2004-2010 before switching to Zurich International School from 2010-2014, attending both schools as a day student.
He told The Local: "In terms of my integration (in Switzerland), I found I had to go outside the sphere of the international school in order to learn Swiss German and to interact with the Swiss community.
"I played tennis at local clubs, attended the hockey games, and generally tried to branch out my social interaction.
"I took a gap year, during which I worked multiple internships and jobs in Zug and Zurich, and I found that these experiences were more helpful in getting full language proficiency and cultural integration.
"That said, I did manage to learn German while attending these schools, and even before my gap year I felt quite at home in Zurich and Zug."