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«This experience taught me how to adapt to a different environment.»

Iulia-Renata Sirbu is an incoming student from Romania, and she just added another semester to her stay. In this interview, she talks about her experience with coming to Switzerland and studying at the ZHAW School of Engineering.

Iulia-Renata, could you tell us something about yourself?

My name is Iulia-Renata Sîrbu, and I am 24 years old. I am a Masters student at the University Politehnica of Bucharest in Romania. Last autumn semester I attended the ZHAW Master of Science in Engineering in Data Science.

When you were considering studying abroad, did you think about countries other than Switzerland as well?

I thought about studying either in Germany or in Switzerland. It narrowed down to Zurich, as my husband got an internship at Google here. I already knew Germany a bit, but I never visited Switzerland, so I was more excited to go somewhere I had not been before.

So, you came here together?

Yes, we live in Zurich. My husband was able to do the internship in autumn as well, so we could be here together at the same time and not have to be apart for too many months.

What were your first impressions when you came to Zurich?

I was stunned by the architecture. It is not just beautiful, it also all blends together. Like somebody painted everything at once. I really like to walk around the city. It is so relaxing because everything feels like a big park. Also, the public transportation here is very good. The people are considerate of each other and the people I have met are very kind.

How many semesters are you studying here?

Initially, I thought I would study here for one semester, but I enjoyed studying at the School of Engineering a lot and after talking to the International Relations Office (IRO) I was allowed to continue with one more semester.

How is studying at the ZHAW School of Engineering compared to your home university?

Each module is split in two seven-week periods. In the first seven weeks we are taught by one professor and in the next the professor changes, and the topic discussed about in the module changes a little too. Back home I always had a single professor per module so adapting mid-semester to another style of teaching was interesting.

When it comes to the contents of the lectures, they overlap a lot with what I study at home. In Bucharest I study Artificial Intelligence, here I study Data Science. I like that the professors bring a lot of experience from their field of expertise and teach very practical topics. The workload is a bit different. At my home university, I used to have a lot of work during the semester, like multiple homework assignments and projects for which I would be graded. At the ZHAW, the focus is more on the exams, which is where you mainly obtain your grade, so preparing for them is more hard work since the pressure is greater. I am lucky to have studied at both universities since I feel like both really prepare you for good jobs in the industry.

How does the IRO support you during your stay?

The first week was the orientation week, where we were handed so many things, like maps of the campus buildings or contacts of the city administration – just everything you need to settle in. The IRO offers so much help: if you have trouble along the way, they jump in and try to help. I cannot vouch for them enough. They also organize ‘buddies’, students from Switzerland who show you around and talk about their experience. The IRO also holds other events to help students meet and exchange impressions and a farewell event at the end of the semester.

What were the highlights of your free time?

There is little free time, but we tried to see a lot on the weekends, like by going hiking, visiting cities and getting to know the culture. I really liked going to Basel, it is a very beautiful city, and we were able to attend the Swiss Indoors tennis tournament there. I am a very big fan of classical music – I play piano and violin myself – so it was on my bucket list to go to the Tonhalle Zürich. We saw the Christmas concert there. It was amazing to be surrounded by so much history. As travelling is quite expensive, we did not go back to Romania during the semester. I am a little homesick, but celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve here was very enjoyable nonetheless.

What will you take home from this experience?

This experience taught me how to adapt to a different environment. You are far from home and you are kind of on your own. Luckily, I can share this experience with my husband. However, I had to figure out a lot on my own, like the culture in a foreign country and the way to study in a new university with different organisation of the modules and workload. Studying abroad teaches a lot of life skills, like how to be considerate and observant of others and understand a new way of living. And of course, time management! I needed to take a few more classes, as the credits for each module are a little less than back home. It was more work to attend all the classes and prepare for them while getting to know everything new around me at the same time, but it was exiting!

Was there something that you did not expect before you came to Switzerland?

I was surprised that there are few women in my study program. Back home, there are a lot more women following the engineering courses or computer sciences. The other thing is that the people are so kind. I mean, you expect them to be, but the real experience exceeds the expectations by far. I always felt welcomed – that really helped me to adapt during the semester.

Why would you recommend studying abroad?

Personally, it was an extremely helpful experience, both professionally and personally. One of the best experiences I have ever had! I made so many new friends from different countries – of course from Switzerland, but also from France, Italy and Korea – through this exchange program. I liked talking to the other students and finding out about their cultures! I learned a lot during the semester while being in a new and beautiful environment. It is the perfect combination!