A Year At A Swiss Boarding School

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A Year At A Swiss Boarding School
In 1957-58 Montrealer Peter Denis attended a boarding school in Switzerland. In this article he recounts his experiences for us.

Editor's note: In 1957-58 my cousin Peter Denis attended a boarding school in Switzerland. He very kindly answered my questions about his time abroad at school. ~Rob

What prompted your parents to send you to boarding school overseas? Which school did they send you to? How did you get there?

My parents wanted me to improve my French. So they sent me for one year after high school and before university to Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande, Chailly sur Lausanne, Switzerland. I was the third in a series of five people who had followed such a plan. The idea was to live in the boarding school together with the students doing regular studies. I was enrolled to learn French which I had already been exposed to over eight years growing up in my hometown of Montreal, Quebec. This Swiss school had a French second language program with dedicated teachers to accommodate students from around the world. The 18 students in my class came from the US, Norway, Sweden, Iran, Germany, to name just a couple of the countries. 

There was no penalty for speaking English, but if you were going to survive, you had to learn French. Once your French was at an acceptable level, you were placed in the regular classes. 

I traveled to Le Havre, France via a Cunard steamship from Montreal. Then I spent five days in Paris with cousins. This was before travel by jet. 

Which grades did you attend? What courses did you take? In what sports did you participate? In what extracurricular activities did you participate? 

When I started attending regular classes, I was one year below the final year for the Suisse Maturité. I took History, Math, and Biology. For sports, I played on the school basketball team and did some field events like throwing the javelin. One of my classmates was an Egyptian boy who had been trained by some touring American Olympians. He knew what he was doing. Groups of boarders were taken to movies and concerts, so we had regular entertainment. The school organized a trip to Rome during the Fall Break Week.  I organized a ski holiday over the Christmas break.

This short video explains high school education in Switzerland.

What was the school community like? What were the teachers like? What were the dorms like? What was the food like? 

The school community was very international. There were sons of diplomats, lots of rich Iranians and Americans. One of my roommates was the son of a Section Editor at Time Magazine. The teachers were excellent. Many lived in the school and had taught there for many years. 

The sleeping accommodations consisted of rooms of four or two. The boarding school was for boys only. The girls were day students as were some boys as well. The food was boarding school food prepared on-site. We ate with a regular group of twelve with a teacher -always the same one - at our table. We only balked at the food when we were offered squirrel. There was lots of yogurt for breakfast about ten years before it came to North America.
Did you have a chance to take any trips away from your school? Where did you go? What was it like?

We went to Rome for the fall break which was one week long. A couple of friends and I slipped away from the group to spend a couple of extra days in the Vatican Museums. On one epic day, the girlfriend of the teacher leading us blew up at him and stormed off. We next saw her on the train home. At Christmas, I organized my own ski holiday. I also attended a soccer camp at a Swiss Olympic training center in the Jura Mountains, I visited a friend in Neuchatel for a wine festival and had a few weekend ski excursions with the school to nearby centers. One lovely spring day all the older boys were driven by bus to the vineyards around Lake Geneva for a walking excursion. In June we also took a train to the top of a mountain, then walked down. All the trips were well-planned. We stayed in hostel-like accommodations. The discipline was very relaxed compared to what I expected.

This video gives us an idea of what skiing in the Swiss Alps is like.

How did you communicate with your parents? Did they visit you?

I wrote regularly to my parents about what was happening. They came in late May and took a large group of my friends to a nice dinner in Lausanne with the teacher. Then we traveled throughout western and central Switzerland for about four days in a rented Chevrolet.

How did attending a European boarding school benefit you? 

I remember the experience fondly, as did my younger brother John. Our next-door neighbors did the same as I did, and they too enjoyed it. The school still keeps in touch me via an annual publication about graduates and teachers. I would recommend the experience to anyone although, in my day back in 1957-58, it cost my father about CA$4,000 or $35,000 in 2016 dollars, for everything, including school fees and travel. 

I visited the school again in 1988 with my wife Loy. We had lunch with the current headmaster who had taught me in my French classes. He said that the cost of the school was then about US$50,000 per year for boarders because the Swiss Franc had increased to $US1.25 from the $.22 it was in my time. This meant that starting teachers were paid about $US72,000. Most of them made $90,000 - $100,000. By the 1990s North American students were rare, having been replaced by lots of Japanese and Chinese students.

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