Meet the German and Chinese students who chose to go to school in Sweden
Schools are places where children learn to navigate human interactions, as well as getting an academic education. For schools with many international students, the rich cultural complexities add another dimension to this formative experience.
So, what’s it like for students who move alone to Sweden despite having no prior links to the country? A little daunting but incredibly enriching!
That’s the verdict from two boarding students – one from Germany and one from China – at Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL), Sweden’s leading boarding school.
Finding your own path
When Antonia Bornemann, from Germany, arrived at SSHL aged 15, she and her family were sure she’d only stay for one year. Three years later she’s graduating from the school this summer. So, what happened?
“It’s really common in Germany to do an exchange year in 10th grade to improve your English,” explains Antonia, now 18. While she attended her local public school, her younger brother enrolled at an international school in Munich, leaving her “almost a tiny bit jealous as I thought the system would fit me”. But 10th grade was her chance!
“I didn’t want to go to England or the US because that’s what most people choose. I was considering Sweden and New Zealand, then coronavirus happened and New Zealand closed down, so it was Sweden for me. I’m very happy about that and I loved the school so much that I decided to finish school here.”
Her passion for life at SSHL even led her younger brother to follow her there and they now get regular visits from their parents, who have developed a fondness for Sweden.
Finding a system to help her thrive was also a huge factor in Zifu Xu packing her bags in August 2022 – aged just 14 – to move to SSHL from her family home in Shenzhen, a tech hub and one of China’s biggest cities.
“My parents wanted me to study abroad because they think there are many ways to live in this world,” says Zifu, now 15. “They told me from a young age that I was a unique individual and I didn’t have to follow the path that others set for me.
“In China, parents have absolute authority over their children and the children must comply with their demands. But my parents believe that critical thinking and respect between people are the most important things, so I feel very lucky.”
Stepping into Astrid Lindgren’s world
Both girls love SSHL’s enchanting surroundings and supportive atmosphere. Just 40 minutes from Stockholm and 20 minutes from Arlanda airport, the school has Lake Mälaren, lush forest and sweeping landscapes on its doorstep. Sigtuna itself is Sweden’s first town, dating back to the 10th century, and the old town is also within walking distance.
But what did they know about Sweden before they arrived? “Not too much to be honest,” says Antonia. “I’d never been here, we don’t have family here and it’s not the most common vacation place. I imagined it to be like the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s children's books.
"I was a big fan and also watched all the movies! I wasn’t too far off – Sigtuna is a cute little town and really looks like that! I love being close to the water and swimming in the lake in summer. I also used to go to Stockholm a lot on weekends and it’s a beautiful city as well.”
Zifu is also a keen reader and her first knowledge of Sweden stemmed from Chinese writer Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. “I just knew Sweden was the place where the prize was awarded. Later, I learned a bit about the Viking period in world history at school.”
Her parents considered sending her to the US, but were attracted to Sweden’s reputation for gender equality. SSHL’s long history of teaching IB programmes was also a factor (students can choose between the Swedish curriculum and the IB and around 300 of the 700 students receive their lessons in English).
“My parents thought I’d get more respect in an equal environment,” she says. “I also wanted to take IB courses because they develop your critical thinking skills, and promote international awareness and cross-cultural communication. SSHL has been offering IB programmes for around 40 years.”
Breaking the ice with international friends
Zifu was “excited but nervous” on arriving at SSHL but like Antonia, she says she quickly made friends with people from many nationalities.
“I was a bit scared that I wouldn’t be able to meet the challenges I faced without my parents,” recalls Zifu. “I met one of my boarding house 'parents’ first and he made me feel this place would become my home. I made some friends on the first day of school because we have an activity called ‘icebreaker’ that helps you get to know people.”
“Many of my friends are half-Swedish or Swedish but have lived in many different countries,” adds Antonia. “It’s cool to hear how everyone has a different story!
“The teachers are also very helpful. After tests you go through what you did wrong to make sure next time it goes better. Knowing you’ll get the support you need helps to motivate me.”
While the landscape and the people share many similarities with Germany, she particularly enjoys the enthusiasm for national traditions at SSHL. These range from rising early to sing Christmas songs together outside the boarding house, to Midsummer celebrations.
“The school has a lot of traditions that bring people together,” she says. “That feels a little different from other schools including my German school.”
Ready to face the future
When Zifu went home to China in February, family and friends said she had already become “more independent and more assertive”.
“My parents think studying abroad and boarding can not only allow you to experience the culture and customs of another country but also make you a strong person,” she adds.
Antonia is graduating this summer and moving to the Netherlands to start a degree in International Business at Maastricht University. “I’ll remember my time in Sweden as something I enjoyed a lot but also as something that changed me,” she says. “After living in a boarding house with 25 girls, I can adjust to situations and solve conflicts better. You can’t always just do what you want; you have to take other people and their cultures into account as well.”
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