As the longest-accredited international school in Switzerland, ZIS’s heritage stretches all the way back to its foundation as the American International School of Zurich (AISZ) in 1963.
From humble beginnings, the school’s focus on delivering exactly what students need from their education means it has developed an outstanding reputation for the quality of its academics and enduring values.
But what we now call the ZIS Experience has always been at its heart – as six alumni, one from each decade of our history, explain
“AISZ was the single most influential experience I ever had in my life,” says award-winning Hollywood screenwriter Josann, who came to Zurich from public school in New York. “There was an emphasis on critical thought and thinking for yourself, and a focus on the discipline of independent working, with homework a key part of that.”
Indeed, her time in Zurich set the bar for her whole life to come, with credits including Runaway Bride and Disney’s Descendants trilogy. From studying English at UCLA to the general conversational rough and tumble of everyday life, “nothing was ever as challenging or as exciting. There was a level of discourse that has been hard to find.”
“AISZ was the single most influential experience I ever had in my life; there was an emphasis on critical thought and thinking for yourself”
It was at AISZ that Josann’s ambition to become a writer were crystallised, she says, thanks to English teacher Chuck Kruger.
“His classes blew my mind in terms of how to approach literature and what to look for; how to read and get so much out of it. I just loved his classes. The AP class had five kids in it; we met in his office, but we’d also get to explore places such as museums to enhance our learning.
“I always loved writing assignments as if they were a play, and he encouraged that. I remember on one report card he wrote ‘Josann’s ear for dialogue continues to amaze me’, and that had a big impact on me. I had always thought I wanted to be a playwright, and when this man who I admired more than any other teacher said that, it gave me such a boost. I thought, well then, I guess I am good, and I’m going to really go for it!”
It took Tom a little while to “get into the groove” of academic life when he joined AISZ as a senior in 1965. “I had never really studied that hard in school and I had to study a lot harder at AISZ, but I really enjoyed it,” he says. “The environment was very conducive to learning and it did help prepare me to go on to college.”
Studying two years’ worth of German in one year was a particularly steep learning curve, he recalls: “I needed two years of a foreign language to graduate and I only had one year to graduate! That was pretty intense because I had never had a foreign language before.”
But although it was challenging, being at AISZ, even for just that single year, says Tom, “taught me how to study”, a skill that stood him in good stead for his degree in engineering at the University of Utah, a route that ultimately led to Tom founding a series of companies and not-for-profits.
“It was a great stepping stone to get me out of my comfort zone and help me learn how to adapt to different situations”
And even more crucially, he says, AISZ broadened his horizons socially and intellectually. “It was a great stepping stone to get me out of my comfort zone and help me learn how to adapt to different situations. I enjoyed hearing a lot of different opinions about different things and realising that we may not all agree – and that’s fine.”
Per came up with the idea for the business aviation company now known as Avinode Group during his Master’s degree at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. Twenty-two years later, he credits AISZ for enabling that precociousness – and long-term success.
The global nature of the community was key: “My graduating class had students from every continent in the world, which means that I’ve always felt that the world is very small. That comes in pretty handy, because aviation is global.
“For me, it was very easy to say that we won’t just target the Swedish or European markets, but that we’d look at it as a worldwide market, because I feel like that’s where I have friends from, that’s where I grew up, those are the cultures and experiences I had.”
“My graduating class had students from every continent in the world, which means that I’ve always felt that the world is very small”
Also crucial has been a reflectiveness that Per says was nurtured early on in his time at the school. “I remember my chemistry teacher, Richard Pacheco. The first thing he gave us was a sheet to keep track of our own grades. He said, ‘You should always know exactly where you are. And you’re responsible, so don’t come asking at the end of the quarter why you aren’t where you were hoping for.’ I appreciated that accountability. It took away a lot of ambiguity and put the responsibility on the student rather than the just on the teacher.”
It was that type of experience with a range of passionate teachers at the school that made Per who is today, he says. “I always felt like I was treated as an adult with responsibilities.”
When Renée was asked to address a gathering of the Model United Nations in St Petersburg on behalf of a delegation from AISZ in Grade 11, she had no public speaking experience. She didn’t have much time to prepare either – history teacher Andreas Meitanis had asked her to address the delegates in an auditorium of thousands with just a few hours’ notice.
The experience was “nerve-wracking”, she says, but Ren.e enjoyed herself hugely, and a love for public speaking was born. Today, that passion finds an outlet in regular court appearances in her role as a lawyer specialising in commercial litigation.
“I’m in court all the time. For some people that’s the stuff of nightmares but I absolutely love it. I don’t want to say I don’t get nervous – I do – but I get good nervous. I really thrive in the courtroom.”
“The environment lent itself to fostering really close relationships with people from different backgrounds”
AISZ helped Renée get to where she is today in other ways too. “The environment lent itself to fostering really close relationships with people from a variety of different cultural backgrounds.” That ability to forge connections has been instrumental to her success as an attorney. “As I started my career, I was never shy about connecting with people, even if they were significantly senior to where I was. That led to opportunities I might not otherwise have had. As I progressed, my ability to navigate unfamiliar situations and find commonalities with people has helped me to develop the client relationships on which my practice depends.”
Renée is now at the stage in her career where she is able to play that senior role in the lives of younger colleagues making their way in the profession, both organically with those within her firm and through more formal set-ups like The Legal Mentor Network. “I try to make myself accessible and give the next generation of attorneys the tools to succeed.”
Enrico had two passions at high school: science and music. He ultimately opted for a career in the former, but he is in no doubt that being encouraged to pursue both disciplines has been key to his success. While he is currently Chief Technology Officer at a robotics software company, past research roles have included looking for inspiration for robotics in the animal world, and a startup aiming to make robotics more accessible.
“I had a lot of curiosity as a kid and the teachers being passionate and patient helped to foster that curiosity”
“There was never a barrier between artistically minded people and mathematically minded people at school,” he says. “Instead, the culture focused on how important the arts are to the sciences and that gave me a very broad sense of what research domains can be; the concept that knowledge and careers are more than just one thing.”
That culture manifested in various ways at ZIS, from passionate teachers who were always ready to continue a discussion after class – “I had a lot of curiosity as a kid and the teachers being passionate and patient helped to foster that curiosity,” he recalls – to multi-disciplinary school trips to Iceland and Nepal, for example, that encouraged a holistic approach to learning.
“My desire to have a broad set of skills and explore career areas beyond the predefined path is related to the open-minded, compassionate and general worldly culture that ZIS has.”
With a student body comprising only around 200 students during Adrien’s time at AISZ, everyone pretty much knew everyone, he says. “It was one big family; we were all in the same situation in that we were in a foreign country. At a young age you were constantly exposed to kids from everywhere.
“And that sets you up with some really important life skills: how to be tolerant of people around you, and also how to work with people from different cultures. Because we were such a small group, you just had to learn how to get on with everyone.”
Adrien called on those skills at the very start of his career, when he moved to France to take up a postdoctoral research role in cellular biology at the Centre d’Immunologie Marseille-Luminy. “I just slotted in; it wasn’t stressful. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to cope in a country where you didn’t speak the language very well and had to find your own apartment and pay your bills. My school days had already provided the foundation to be able to manage that.”
“You’re constantly dealing with international scientists, so my multi-cultural experience helps in forging collaborations”
And those skills have come in handy to this day, both in academia at Queen’s University Belfast, where he is Deputy Director at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, and as Co-Founder of neurotechnology company INCISIV. “You’re constantly dealing with international scientists, so my multi-cultural experience helps in forging collaborations and managing staff,” he says.