As part of the International School of Lausanne’s goal of augmenting our Year 13 university transitions curriculum, our Academic Counsellors, Ms Edmunds and Mr McArthur, and Year 13 Leader, Mr Pearcy, have been reaching out to our recent ISL alumni with a specific focus on learning more about what the alumni wish they had known about university life and studies before starting university.

At ISL, the transition from secondary to university is collaborative; the Academic Counsellors and the High School Homeroom team aim to support students in not only finding the university and course that fits best for each individual, but also to ensure that they are equipped for life beyond. We often celebrate the successes of students where the transition has gone well, but the learning is rich when we explore the challenges. As adults, we know that the route to “success” is often not from “A” to “B” and that the squiggly routes taken are often hidden. We hope that by looking at one student’s journey, we can all reflect on our individual priorities and how to best navigate transition. 

Ms Edmunds received an email from ISL alumni, Irene Kholeva (Class of 2021), who undertook her International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at ISL, and who responded with wonderful openness and a strong desire to help and encourage both fellow alumni who may be finding the change to university life challenging, and to better prepare current ISL students for some of the challenges that may lie ahead.

Irene joined the International School of Lausanne from a public school in Moscow, and has nothing but praise for how the teachers of ISL supported her as an EAL student: “I had lots of academic gaps due to taking subjects I had never had before and it was difficult to improve because I didn’t speak English well. I didn’t take EAL classes, but every single teacher knew about my difficulties and made extra time to have additional meetings with me in order to help me master their subjects. I’m forever grateful for their patience.”

Some of Irene’s most special memories from her time at ISL connect closely with performing dance and music on stage, in particular an interpretive dance performed to support the Black Lives Matter movement: “Being able to creatively express myself as a part of the IB CAS curriculum and just having moments of pure joy in front of the whole school with my friends and teachers was unforgettable. Especially when we performed three times (due to Covid regulations) for each group on Graduation Day! We felt like famous musicians with huge responsibilities:)”

We are grateful to Irene for taking the time to share her transition story with us…

On graduating from the International School of Lausanne, I went to university in the UK, to study Music Industries Management. However, I left because the program wasn’t challenging enough; I felt like I was losing my skills rather than gaining knowledge. Additionally, the university was not very organised with their information – it took a lot of time and effort to find answers to simple things like semester timetabling. Motivation in classes was low, and so was attendance, which made it difficult to work in teams.

In retrospect, there are things I wish I had known to research when choosing a university and subject course: I would have asked beforehand how many hours per week we would spend in class, because, for my course, it was only seven – nine hours. I would also have found out how long the course had been running; this one was new and therefore didn’t have graduates yet, so I couldn’t talk to alumni and see where the course could truly take me careerwise (it was all theoretical on the website). This really explained the limited quality of education as the course was undeveloped and lacked context, theory, and so on. 

I wanted to share my story because I think it is important that alumni are honest about the highs and lows of their university experiences. The picture that we had been given by other ISL alumni before graduation showcased the fun and exciting parts of university life, which meant that many of us ended up being blindsided by some of the more difficult and challenging realities: how hard it can be if you end up in the wrong place; how to deal with university and life admin; how to cope with homesickness; and, perhaps most importantly, that lots of people do end up changing courses or universities after realising that they have made the wrong choice.

These unexpected day-to-day challenges made many of us feel anxious – it is hard enough to leave home and live away from family and friends for the first time, without thinking that we are the only ones finding it tough. This is why it was important for me to share my story – to reassure any other ISL alumni who are finding the transition to university life more difficult than you initially expected that you are not alone.

However, the journey of coping with these challenges has also had its positives! During my year in the UK, I learnt how to be independent, and became more thoughtful and caring about myself and the people around me. I had to learn how to manage personal communication with my concerned family with socialising with the people around me in the UK (so I didn’t go crazy spending all my time on the phone in my room!). And I learnt how to stand up for myself and how to integrate in a different culture. So it all helped in the end and the experience made me choose the next university I went to differently and more thoughtfully.  

Now I’m at ESSCA in France studying International Management. I am really enjoying university life here. It really helped that I had gained the experience to ask the right questions and (as a personal choice) chose a private school. It is important to understand the difference between public and private universities, as effective marketing can hide the reality, which is why I strongly recommend contacting current students and alumni to get authentic stories about the university you are considering. Visiting campuses is not enough – you can witness a modern, clean, attractive building, but that doesn’t mean it will provide the education and environment that suits you. Make sure that you are careful to filter what you see and hear and analyse it for your own future.

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Overall, everyone’s university transition experience is very individual and unpredictable, so to my fellow ISL alumni, and future ISL alumni, I would like to say: don’t stress if some things don’t go the way you expected; instead, be flexible to changing your plans, keep communicating with people you can trust to help you, and be open to new possibilities. With time and careful research, you’ll end up being in the best place for you with rich experiences behind and lots of stories to tell!