Mercer Island Goes Abroad: Virtual Learning Allows for New Travel Opportunities

Graphic+by+Morgan+Dawson

Graphic by Morgan Dawson

Morgan Dawson

By Morgan Dawson

For many students, online school has meant sitting indoors at home, staring at screens, but for some, this virtual format has allowed a unique opportunity to learn from abroad. MIHS students are traveling the world and taking their classes with them, immersed in new environments and cultures – within the boundaries of a pandemic.

Sophomore Lainie Wion has been spending her semester in Zermatt, Switzerland and, when she’s not in class, she has been passing the time skiing in the Alps or hiking the scenic mountain landscapes. 

“The gondola is a 15-minute walk through town and the closest trailhead for hiking is right across the street,” Wion said. “We hike or ski everyday in a five hour window between morning and afternoon classes.”

Wion is enrolled in Swiss Semester: a three-month boarding school program in the heart of the Swiss Alps. 

“The program is very academically rigorous and I knew it would challenge me a lot more than online school,” Wion said.

With the coronavirus pandemic still rampant in the United States, many precautions had to be taken for the journey over. For Wion, this included getting tested for the virus and quarantining for ten days upon arrival.

“Masks are mandated everywhere and we wear them pretty much constantly unless we’re in our room, eating or hiking,” Wion said. 

As a Swiss citizen, Wion has visited the country almost yearly and already is familiar with the culture. Living there for a semester has also given her the opportunity to connect with her family’s roots. 

“My grandma was born and raised in Switzerland and it’s really fun being able to further explore her country,” Wion said. “I feel like it has made me more connected to her in a way, because I get to experience a lot of things she did when she was my age.”

Scheduled to return in December, Wion already knows there is so much that she will miss from her time with Swiss Semester. One aspect in particular is the program’s no-cellphone policy.

“I have absolutely loved not having my phone,” Wion continued. “When I get back I will definitely be using my phone way less and it has really helped me be more productive and honestly way happier not being surrounded by degrading social media.”

Also in Europe, over to the North, sophomore Julia Zenden, has been spending her semester in Den Bosch, Netherlands.

Zenden had long been interested in taking a semester abroad and felt that online school was the perfect opportunity to finally do so.

“Towards the end of the school year last year my family had brought up the idea of going to the Netherlands,”  Zenden said. “It really intrigued me, especially knowing that my sport and school were probably not going to continue. Before, it had never really seemed possible, because of all my extracurriculars.”

At the beginning of her stay, while in ten-day quarantine, Zenden continued to participate in the MIHS online curriculum – not an easy feat, considering the nine hour time difference. 

“I would do all my homework in the morning, and join all the Zooms in the evening,”  Zenden said.

After her period of quarantining was up, she was able to enroll in a Dutch public school, which she attends now. Already, she has noticed lots of differences in the Dutch curriculum, compared to that of Mercer Island.

“I have noticed that I’m a lot less stressed here than I was on Mercer Island, purely because the grade expectations aren’t as high,” Zenden said. “I also intend on going to university in the Netherlands, so going to a local public school is a great opportunity for me to get to know the culture and better my Dutch.”

One notable cultural aspect that Zenden had to adjust to was biking to school. Bikes have long been a staple for Dutch citizens and schoolchildren, providing a safe and efficient way to navigate the compact city streets.

“In the Netherlands it’s very normal to bike to school, and that has been very interesting so far, especially considering that I normally get driven or take the bus to school,”  Zenden said. “On my first day, actually, I was biking to school, and it started pouring rain, so by the time I arrived, I was totally soaked through!”

On top of the cultural adaptation that Zenden has had to undergo, she has also had to adapt to the country’s pandemic regulations. 

“Currently the coronavirus situation is not good,” Zenden said. “There was a huge spike a couple of weeks ago, and we are currently on partial lockdown, with schools still open but everything else being closed. I always make sure to wear a mask, sanitize wherever I go, and have only been seeing two people outside of my family.” 

Though her semester abroad has turned out to be much different than she may have once imagined, Zenden is still enjoying the unique experience.

MIHS student, Mimi Hartman, is having an equally unique semester abroad, at Alexander Muss High School in Israel.

“My mom and siblings have done this same program and I had always wanted to do it as well,” Hartman said.

The program exposes students to many different aspects of Israeli culture, through a mixture of general studies classes and fun, educational excursions. 

“We travel around Israel at least once a week,” Hartman said. “As we learn about the history of the country, we go visit the sites where each event took place. For example, when we learned about the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, we got to see the exact place where it was signed.”

But like the other abroad students, Hartman had to go through a quarantining process before any traveling around could be done.

“We quarantined in groups of four for two weeks,” Hartman said. “We had scheduled outside time and food brought to our door everyday. We did fun activities while stuck inside, but it got very boring after a while of being in the same place.”

Despite the threat of COVID-19, living in Israel has given Hartman a new appreciation and understanding of her religion and has even helped her meet lifelong friends in the process.

“I will miss the amazing community that I have become a part of during my time here,” Hartman said. “I consider everyone here family to me and going to Israel was the best decision I have ever made.”

Though online school has come with many struggles, the opportunities it has allowed are undeniable. From hiking in the Swiss Alps, to biking in the streets of Amsterdam, or exploring historic Israeli landmarks, virtual learning has opened the door for experiences that may have never been possible otherwise.