Switzerland | Differences


I was on the phone with my dad the other day when he asked “is everything over there totally different?” My initial gut reaction was of course not! But, when I asked what he meant, I realized that maybe things are more different than I had realized. (He asked me if the microwave is different, and by the way it is.) Switzerland is a Western country, and is incredibly similar to the United States in most ways, but there are small things that feel really different.

Outlets. I have taken for granted the abundance of outlets whenever I need them. Sure, usually there aren’t outlets easily accessible in lecture halls, but I can always find one in a smaller classroom, in the hall or in any study spot on campus. I have yet to find an outlet at UNIGE. Are there any in lecture halls? Nope. In smaller classrooms? No. In random places in open areas where I could maybe sit on the ground and charge? No again. I am genuinely starting to think that Swiss electronics just never die, because in addition to the lack of outlets at UNIGE, they’re absent from pretty much everywhere.

I love going to coffee shops to study. Not only am I more productive since I’m not in/near my bed, but I also like the activity happening around me, and the proximity of another latte. But, this is dependent on the battery life of my computer. At home this is no problem, when my battery is running low I just move seats or find the closest outlet to plug into. But not here – in my favorite study spot I have found exactly one outlet in the entire café. Word to the wise – always leave home with fully charged devices.

Boreal is quickly turning into my favorite place to work. But I still don’t understand how people can work here on their computers forever with no outlets

Less than 24 hours after landing in Geneva we had to find our way to orientation at Uni Mail (the mail UNIGE building) in room R050. I was jet lagged, sleep deprived, stressed, and felt like it was hard enough just getting to the building, let alone finding a room that definitely did not have a clear floor number.

It turns out that a room such as R050 actually does have a clear floor number, 0. In Geneva, as with probably many other places, the ground floor isn’t the first floor – the one above it is. Just think of how many flights of stairs you have to walk up, and that’s the floor you’re on.

The ceiling of the main area of Uni Mail

As a north campus major I’m used to my final grade being made up of many different components; participation, papers, maybe a midterm and a final with ways to boost your grade thrown in every once in a while. Fall quarter I was in a Poli Sci class that calculated your final grade from two things, 50% midterm and 50% final paper. Honestly, this terrified me because I knew that doing poorly on one meant doing poorly in the class. As it turned out, this was a great stepping-stone into Swiss education. The final grades for all five of my classes are based 100% on the final. If you’re not the best test taker, like myself, this is incredibly daunting. Also, not all finals here take the same format. I have some written open book finals, some written closed book final, and an oral final where we have 15 minutes to answer two questions to the best of our abilities. The hard part about having my entire grade based on the final, other than you know the final, is staying motivated to stay on top of all my reading. Obviously it’s necessary, but it’s definitely easy to fall into the trap of “oh I can always catch up later…” I’m definitely not trying to think too much about the finals since they’re so far away, so I’ll give an update once they’re done.

At home I never have cash. Everything goes on my card, and I rely on venmo to pay other people back for things. If we’re being honest, I really don’t remember the last time I paid for anything in cash, and definitely am never carrying anything larger than a 20 if I have anything. And on the rare occasions that I do use cash I always forget about coins – the only time I use them is paying for the parking meter. While the only two places that I have found in Geneva that do not take a card are a Thai food restaurant and a small news stand, I try my best to use cash for everything. My only reasoning behind this is I would prefer to pay the conversion charge as infrequently as possible – and when you put things on your card you have to pay it every time. For this reason, I take out larger amount of cash from the ATM than I would at home, and to my surprise this means bills larger than a 20.

The first time I used a Swiss ATM I actually didn’t know what to do when it produced a bill worth CHF200. Actually, I was terrified. I felt like giving it back to the machine and demanding it give me something smaller and more manageable that I actually knew how to deal with. But, of course, that’s not possible so I gingerly took it and went on my way. (Side note, as bills here increase in value the physical piece of paper gets longer. It’s kind of cool.) The plus side to ATMs giving you larger bills is that everyone here is able to deal with them and doesn’t look at you like you’re crazy if you pay for your coffee with a 100.

The thing that is the most different about Swiss money is the coins. Gone are the days of coins lying in my wallet forever and never getting used. The smallest Swiss Franc bill is a 10, meaning that coins can equal CHF5, 2 and 1 in addition to the smaller coins. This was weird at first but I actually kind of like it! It’s definitely nice to be able to get rid of heavy coins more regularly.

On the morning of orientation at Uni Mail, the first thing I noticed was the fresh OJ machine in the middle of the large open space. The machine literally squeezes orange juice for you while you stand there. I thought this was the coolest/ weirdest thing, and definitely did not expect to see another one. Well, it turns out that the Swiss must really like freshly squeezed orange juice because I’ve seen similar things all over, and there is even an identical “vending machine” in the lobby at the Cite. I haven’t tried it yet, but it is on my list to try while I’m here!

The OJ machine. At CHF2.80 it might be one of the cheaper options…

Switzerland | Academics


I know you’re probably really excited to get past logistics and on to more fun things, but before we do I have an update on the bank account. Although the man at the front desk of Cite had told me I didn’t need one, I got an email the other day from Cite informing me that I didn’t have a bank account and needed to open one. So just open one at the beginning, it will save you the hassle later on.

The good news is you don’t need a full-fledged bank account! All you need is a depository account where your housing deposit sits. I went to Credit Suisse and it was super easy, at least it was once the woman reminded me that I needed my housing contract… So remember that and your passport and you’re golden!

Registering for classes at UNIGE is so much different than at home, and so much easier! At home I check my pass time as soon as it comes out and spend endless hours on class planner creating my perfect schedule, and then multiple backups. I have to figure out which classes I am eligible to enroll in on first pass, ask friends to hold classes for me, hope classes don’t fill up, and then beg for a PTE. But not here! Our classes started on February 20 and our final course registration wasn’t due until March 15. This took so much pressure off when trying to figure out my schedule. And registration was super easy too, I just submitted the classes I wanted to take on an online portal and I was enrolled. That simple! The first week I went to every class that I thought sounded interesting, and then was able to narrow it down from there. My schedule ended up being Tuesday-Thursday with two classes a day—I really can’t complain.

Everyone with UCEAP is required to take five classes; International Geneva, French and three additional courses. Coming from a place where three courses is standard and four is a lot I was a little bit worried, but since most meet only once a week it has turned out to be totally fine. Since my French is essentially nonexistent (I’m in A1) my choices were limited to classes taught in English, but people on the program with a higher level of French got to choose from classes taught in French as well. I ended up choosing International Institutional Law, Model United Nations Seminar, and Introduction to the World Trade Organization Legal System.

Even though International Geneva is our required course, it’s actually one of my favorites. We meet twice a week, but Thursday is usually a fieldtrip. I had a pretty good idea of what the class would be coming in, an overview of all the international institutions that are located in Geneva, but I hadn’t realized that residents of Geneva use the term “International Geneva” to refer to everything that goes on in the city relating to international affairs. Most of these organizations are located close together and some people even call this part of the city International Geneva as well.

The course is organized thematically, and our visits and guest lecturers have to do with the topic that we are on. So far we have covered the history of International Geneva, human rights and humanitarian law. Our guest speakers are all experts in their fields and range from academics to employees of international organizations. We have gone to the United Nations and this week we are going to the International Committee of the Red Cross. One of the reasons I really like the class is because I feel like we are taking full advantage of the unique location of Geneva since we wouldn’t have access to these people and places in LA.

The next class that everyone has to take is French. Everyone was able to put themselves in the level that they felt was appropriate, and since I am very confident in my lack of French I am doing A1 (the lowest level). There is an A1 class just for UCEAP students, which is really nice. I haven’t taken a beginners language class since I was 10, so I was definitely a little bit worried. Our first day of class put all my worries to rest. Our teacher is a wonderful woman who speaks almost exclusively in French, but switches to English when it’s really necessary. We are learning really helpful and practical phrases and grammar here and there. Since most of us are only taking French for a few months I feel like she’s giving us the most helpful lessons possible. Even though I definitely still get nervous every time I have to talk to someone in French, each week I add a few more phrases and words that I can use to make my life a little bit easier.

The first elective that I knew I wanted to takes was the Model UN seminar. I participated in one MUN conference my senior year of high school and really enjoyed it. I never had the time to do it again in high school or in college so I was really excited when I saw that this was one of the classes we could take. My class is about 30 people, which is much smaller than my classes at UCLA. After only a few weeks I feel like I have already gotten to know our teacher (a PHD student) better than most of my professors at UCLA, and I can recognize pretty much everyone in the class.

Since having done MUN is not a prerequisite for this class we are spending the first half learning about procedure. There is a certain way that delegates conduct themselves in debates and when drafting resolutions, and so we will be focusing on that until spring break so that we will all be familiar with it. After spring break, we will each be assigned a country and we will spend the rest of the semester debating climate change and ISIS as if it was really MUN.

The next class I am taking is about the WTO legal system. Coming into it I had a basic idea about the WTO and what it is, but that is about it. The title sounded a little daunting, and the first class was definitely overwhelming, but it has turned out to be incredibly interesting and easy to follow. Our professor is a lawyer for the WTO so she is obviously very knowledgeable about what we’re learning. She makes it really easy to follow along and understand daunting concepts, probably because she uses a lot of helpful real world examples of things that have happened in the WTO. The coolest part, in my opinion, is that we get to have one of our classes at the WTO and then get a tour afterwards.

My final class is International Institutional Law. So far it is definitely the hardest and I know that it will take the most work to understand. Most of what we are learning has to do with case law, which is not the easiest to read, but I am sure it will get easier. I have International Institutional Law in Uni Bastions, which is the original UNIGE building. It is unlike any other school building I have ever been in. I’m still amazed every time I get to walk in.

Switzerland | Logistics


More logistics. While I know that logistics aren’t the most fun to read about, there’s been a lot I’ve had to figure out in my first two weeks in Switzerland. In retrospect most of this stuff was actually super easy, but it was pretty hard to figure out on my own. My hope is that this info will make it easier for anyone who comes later!

Health Insurance

I know that I talked about this in my last post, and it might seem kind of boring, but figuring out Swiss health insurance was my #1 source of stress during my first week in Geneva – so here is everything I learned so hopefully it’ll be easier for you!

How do I know which company to pick? During our orientation on our first day in Geneva UNIGE had worked with various insurance companies to come to the university and to give us information about their student rates. Health insurance in Switzerland is compulsory and, like pretty much everything else in Geneva, expensive. Since there is no getting around purchasing health insurance it was nice that UNIGE had 3 or 4 companies with much cheaper premiums come so that we had some idea where to begin. Obviously you can choose whichever company you think will work best, but after looking into all of them Advisor seemed to make the most sense. With a CHF 100 deductible, the monthly premium for Advisor is CHF 86. Although this might sound like a lot, it’s within a few Swiss Francs of the other companies and nowhere near as expensive as the monthly premium that normal Swiss residents pay. The main reason that Advisor seemed like the best choice was that I didn’t have to open a Swiss bank account. I’m definitely bummed I won’t be able to say that I have a Swiss bank account in my name, but it turns out that being an American college student makes it pretty difficult to open one.

How do I sign up? Advisor has an easy online application system that you can do in French or English (this was key). Even though it was in English I still spent countless hours trying to figure it out. It turns out you can leave the bank information section blank (which I did) if you don’t have a Swiss bank account. What confused me the most was on the final page it told me I would be insured for a year. While some other people on the program were able to change their dates, I couldn’t and got increasingly worried that I would have to pay for insurance past my stay in Geneva. As it turns out, they emailed me as soon as I submitted the application to ask how long I would be staying and told me that I wouldn’t have to pay once I left- such a relief knowing it was so easy!

How do I pay? After all the stress and confusion surrounding applying for insurance I didn’t know it would be hard to figure out how to pay as well. Advisor sent me an envelope with a piece of paper for each month I would be in Geneva with a detachable potion at the bottom. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it, but later found out that if you bring it to the post office, along with money, they’ll pay your insurance for you. Honestly so simple now that I know! Now the only challenge will be remembering to pay it every month.

A post office near the lake. The building was so pretty I didn’t even realize what it was!


Nothing has made me more appreciative of my phone than only being able to use it on wifi in an unfamiliar place where I don’t speak the language. I didn’t have a Swiss SIM card for my first couple days in Switzerland and I felt so dependent on the people around me who already had working Swiss plans. Sure it’s nice to be able to Snapchat friends about what you’re doing or scroll through Instagram on the bus, but I really felt the inability to text and use Google Maps. I didn’t feel comfortable venturing out on my own knowing that I would have to rely solely on a screenshot of Google Maps to know where I was going and wouldn’t be able to text anyone or look anything up if I got lost.  As silly as it sounds, I really felt that having a working phone gave me the confidence to go out and explore the city on my own – which is something that I couldn’t recommend more!

There are two main phone companies in Geneva that offer good prepaid plans—Salt and Sunrise. The main difference is that with Salt you pay $2/day for unlimited data and then a certain amount per text and call. In contrast, with Sunrise you pay a certain amount every month depending on which plan you want. This felt more like what I was used to at home so I ended up going with Sunrise. I got a plan that gave me unlimited 4G data within Switzerland as well as unlimited texts and calls (to the US too!!) and a small amount of international data for weekend trips. One thing that I learned the hard way – make sure you know how to turn on/ off roaming. Since Geneva is so close to France my phone automatically connected to a French tower the first day I had it and I used up a chunk of my roaming data without even knowing it.

Housing Deposit

Ok so this one is still a little up in the air…. When you check into the Cite when you arrive one of the first things you do is give them a security deposit. Ideally they want you to open a certain kind of bank account called a depository account where your deposit stays during your stay. But, like I said before, I’m trying to avoid opening a bank account at all costs. The man at the front desk assured me that it would most likely be fine for me to just put my deposit on my American Visa, but I guess we’ll find out at the end of this when I try and get my CHF 400 back!

Switzerland | Pre-Departure and Arrival in Geneva


Hi from Geneva!

After being here for a week I am getting into a routine and understanding the logistics of living in Switzerland. Our first week was hectic and heavy on administrative tasks, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t time for exploring!

Pre Departure

I started planning for this study abroad a LONG time ago, so it always felt like it was really far off. If you’re like me, you know that it’s hard to complete anything in a timely manor if you feel like you have forever to do it. This is one of the many reasons I am so thankful for all of the help and guidance of the UCEAP office. The provided us with all the documents and forms (usually with an English translation!) that we needed and gave us clear deadlines about when we needed to turn things in. When planning a trip that is as long as this one all of the logistics can seem incredibly overwhelming, but the UCEAP program breaks them into manageable chucks so that I never felt behind or overwhelmed.

After having been here for just a week I have learned that Swiss administration uses a lot of forms that seem similar but are slightly different. It’s incredibly helpful that we had most of these filled out before we came because it meant that the Cite and UNIGE had them prior to our arrival, and were able to give them to the right people, like the migration office.

Equally important to pre-departure as all these forms is packing! My packing journey began when I realized that, having lived in California my entire life, I wasn’t prepared for winter that involved snow and temperatures under 50. This meant I had no real winter coat or really warm jackets, no hats, and no gloves. Although everyone keeps telling me that this year Switzerland’s winter is unseasonably warm I am so glad that I invested in warmer clothing. I have yet to leave my dorm without a scarf and a warm jacket at the very least.

I have never been the best at packing, so packing for over six months spanning cold winter and hot summer proved to be quite the challenge. In addition to clothes and shoes, a friend of mine who had studied abroad previously gave me the tip to bring toiletries that I might want as well. I have been so thankful for this suggestion because that I had everything like advil and toothpaste right away. Additionally, Geneva is expensive, so even though it seemed expensive at the time, buying these things at home saved a lot of money.

When I was done packing my entire life into the suitcases I had filled two checked bags and a carry on. From what I can tell, this is about average for what other people brought as well. You definitely would not need any more, and if you’re better at packing and being selective in what you bring than I am you definitely could get away with less!

At the airport and ready to go!

Departure & Arrival

To anyone reading this with the intent of going on a study abroad program – make sure to pay attention to weight limits for carry on bags!! I had been too buy making sure my checked luggage wouldn’t pass the 50lb mark that I had completely disregarded the section of the airline website saying that carry on bags had weight limits as well. This was quite the surprise when I got to the airport and found that while my checked luggage was completely fine, it was my carry on that was too heavy! After some rearranging the crisis was averted, but I wish I had paid more attention earlier.

Everyone always reminds you that you shouldn’t bring more luggage than you can handle on your own. While I understand this I don’t think I really appreciated it until I got to baggage claim in Geneva. Luggage carts could only be rented with Swiss Franc coins, of which I had none, so I was left dragging my luggage down to the train. I was lucky enough to be met by a friend of my mom’s who lives in Geneva and who helped me navigate the trains as we made our way to the hotel where I would be spending the first night. Geneva’s public transportation system is fantastic, but to someone who has been traveling for 13 hours and doesn’t speak French it was definitely overwhelming so I was glad to have a helping hand.

After our orientation at UNIGE the next day (I’ll talk about academics in a later post) I once again gathered all my luggage and hopped on public transportation – this time en route to the Cite Universitaire where we are living. After getting lost, filling out more paperwork and paying the deposit I finally got my room! When I thought of a dorm I was picturing my cramped freshman year triple, but our single rooms are huge with lots of desk space and big windows. The only downside is that there aren’t drawers, but there are plenty of shelves to make up for it. The best part of the room, in my opinion, is that each one has a sink.

My room! The desk is enormous

Good closet space and so many shelves!! The sink is to the left of the door, around from my bed.

Actually, even better than the sink is definitely the view from my window. My room looks out over the street, and I have a direct view of snow-covered mountains. They are breathtaking, and I am treated to a spectacular sunset every night.

View from my window

Having my own space is a really nice change from always having a roommate in college, and had made it easier to organize everything I need for various logistic matters. As it turns out there is a lot that the country of Switzerland requires that you do in your first week in the country. The two most important things are getting health insurance and getting a residence permit. As long as you pay attention to emails and respond in a timely manor the residence permit is no big deal! UCEAP organizes everything when you go and it is significantly easier than trying to do it on your own. Healthcare is slightly more difficult. I ended up going with Advisor’s student rate. It took some trial and error, and more than a few panicked phone calls to my mom, but it ended up working out. Give yourself time to figure this out since it is time sensitive, and you feel so much better once you’ve taken care of it! Another logistic that I am still working out is whether or not I need a bank account. As cool as it would be to say I have a Swiss bank account it’s not so easy opening one! I’ll keep you all posted on that one.

Even though my first week has been filled with forms and logistics, I know this is all necessary administration that will make the rest of our program run smoothly and I am so excited for the next 6 months!

Italy | Weekend Trip to Switzerland and Exploring Florence



I’m back from what feels like a very long one-week blogging hiatus. Life has been wonderfully busy, where even the dullest moments (like taking out the trash) are filled with profound beauty and endless exploration.

I wasn’t able to write last weekend because I was sans computer in the Swiss Alps having the most exhilarating, fun-filled, picturesque, three days that I’ve had thus far in my life.

With a group of friends, I took an eight hour bus ride to Interlaken, where we gobbled up mounds of authentic fondue, learned to make chocolate at a cooking school (and quickly devoured that too), sledded forty-five thrilling minutes down an enormous mountain guided only by moonlight, visited Zurich, took a hike, stumbled upon ancient German ruins, and…wait for it… paraglided through the clouds over the incredibly stunning Swiss Alps. (I can barely stomach going down an escalator, so the thought of paragliding was absolutely horrifying to me… and also the best thing I’ve ever done).

After a phenomenal weekend away, I’m back in Florence, and like anytime I step foot outside of these city limits, I’ve returned with an entirely new prospective and appreciation for this unparalleled city. After Switzerland, I feel completely rejuvenated from that fresh mountain air, but I’m fondue-ed out, and ready to realign my loyalty with my beloved spaghetti.

Almost every weekend, I’ve travelled at least for the day and a night. There is a group mentality that I’ve picked up on amongst study abroad students here towards seizing every single moment so as to experience as much of Europe as possible (and sometimes even Africa). Every Monday the professors go around the class and ask, “dove siete andati durante il fine settimana?” (where did you all go over the weekend?). Responses never fail to include cities scattered across the entirety of Europe. It’s strangely easy to feel like staying in Florence is commonplace and even a little bit boring. I know… can you imagine?!

I am infinitely grateful to have been able to travel to so many fascinating places  (Interlaken, Zurich, Rome, Pisa, Lucca, Verona, Venice, Siena, and San Gimignano). For many students, frequently traveling outside of Florence and experiencing the beauty that is Europe was the initial goal of studying abroad, however, for me, it wasn’t. My original objective was to spend so much time in Florence that I become completely and utterly enveloped and swaddled up tightly in the warm, welcoming, rich, aromatic, and tasty culture here.

This weekend I reminded myself of this intention, and was adamant about staying in this beautiful city that contains more than I could possibly see, experience, or eat in seventy-eight lifetimes.

Last night, it rained harder than I ever thought possible. I considered turning on my rain-sounds white noise app, just to cover up the natural, cats-and-dogs pelting rain outside.

But this morning, I woke up to the most miraculously, crystal-clear, brilliant, blue Saturday sky. What a great day to be in Florence.

After making a quick breakfast at our apartment, Ruby and I decided that the garbage sitting under the kitchen sink had long past reached its expiration date. We gathered up our trash bags and took them outside where we dumped them in the city garbage receptors 300 meters away from our apartment (I’m trying to learn the language of the metric system).

That walk to the trashcans is one of my favorite parts of the week. We pass quaint gelaterias, hip bars, ancient buildings with antique terraces, incredibly innovative street art, and the unbelievable Santa Croce Church, which houses amazingly intricate frescos along with the tombs of Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Galieleo (not to name drop or anything).

Today, on our way back from dumping out the garbage, we decided to go inside the Santa Croce Church, instead of simply admiring it’s outside beauty from (the close) distance of our garbage cans.

Ruby had been in the Santa Croce before with her Art History class here, so she was able to spare me the time and energy of reading the explanatory plaques on the wall, and she gave me a condensed, more lively version of the most interesting facts about this 13th century church.

While I was admiring Michelangelo’s elaborately decorative and enormous tomb, a group of five monks asked me to take their photo on one of their iPhones. Not only did I get to learn about the incredibly fascinating and overwhelmingly exquisite history of the church, but I also learned that monks love selfies too!

When our stomachs began to rumble (as they seem to do about every twenty minutes here), we headed a few steps around the corner to La Prosciutteria, where met up with our friend Sofia. Ruby and I shared a decadent, artfully displayed board of prosciutto, salami, ham, several types of cheeses, roasted vegetables, olives, different breads, and some fig marmalade to top. This gluttonous feast was considered to be a “sampling plate” for two, but in reality it was so enormous, it could have fed my teenage brother.

Of course, lunch wasn’t complete until we got our gelato fix from Gelateria dei Neri (a place that was recommended in the Florence guide book my parents got me for Christmas). The three of us all ordered the “burro di caramello” flavor (butter caramel). It tasted rich and delicious like Werther’s Candy in ice cream form (aka heaven really is on earth, and it’s in a gelato shop right by my apartment).

We tried to walk off our lunches with some good old-fashioned window-shopping. We wandered through the leather market, gawking over the artisan bags, and snooped through the chic racks of the Italian boutiques and department stores. Along the way we listened to street musicians and watched brilliant chalk artists create temporary masterpieces on the cobble stone roads.

Somehow our shopping turned into yet another excuse for a snack break, as there was a coffee shop on the roof of one of the department stores (thanks for the recommendation Andrea!). We sipped on espressos and munched on our complimentary peanuts while looking out at the café’s breathtaking view of the Duomo, the cathedral in Florence and the most iconic monument in the city.

We attempted to climb to the top of the Duomo (where you get a panoramic view of Florence) but the lines were far too long, and we decided to wait until a weekday rolls around and all the tourists get out of our city 😉

We each went back to our apartments to regroup before we’d meet up for dinner later, where I’d indulge yet again in Florence–in another new restaurant, on a street I’d never walked down before, with waiters that could become future friends, and dishes that I hadn’t yet tasted that could very well be my new favorite meal.

Florence, what more could I ask for?

Willa Giffin studied abroad in Florence, Italy in Winter 2017: