School trips help expat students feel at home

Building relationships in a brand new country can be tough – and expat children who switch schools frequently can have a hard time settling in. But Stockholm International School has a recipe for success that makes every student feel at home.

School trips help expat students feel at home
Photo: Stockholm International School

Walking through Stockholm’s idyllic St. Johannes church yard at 1pm on a Monday, one hears church bells blending seamlessly into chiming laughter.

There’s a playground nestled into one corner of the park, and dozens of children are cheering on their peers in a fervent but friendly game of kickball. Everyone is involved – there are kids playing rock-paper-scissors on the side, but no one is alone.

It could be an ordinary day at an ordinary school. But there’s something remarkable about the atmosphere here, an air of warmth and inclusiveness, despite the variety of languages flowing from their lips.

Indeed, the student body at Stockholm International School represents 64 nationalities – and all of them are friends.

“There are always a lot of new kids here,” says Matthew Schulte, a grade 6 advisor and science teacher from Australia.

“So many families come and go through Stockholm, and some of the students only arrive in Sweden a week before school starts.”

But rather than struggling to get to know each other, it’s clear that these kids are already totally comfortable in one another’s company.

It’s no coincidence. Stockholm International School has a tried-and-true formula for helping students and teachers alike feel at home, whether they attend the school for one year or ten.

“The first week is orientation week, where we have a significant advisory programme and use a buddy system,” Schulte says. “We pair up the new kids with a group of kids with the same language skills, so they’re able to communicate at least in some way.”

And then it’s time for the real kickstarter, perhaps the highlight of the year: the school trips.

All students in grades 6 to 10 go on an annual ‘Sweden trip’, a journey which is part of the SIS curriculum and teaches students about the nature, geography, history, and culture of Sweden – but above all, giving them a chance to get to know each other.

“We do it at the start of each year, and it’s a great way to build relationships by immersion,” Schulte says.  

“For many of the sixth graders it’s their first time away from home. The students get the chance straight away to develop friendships, get to know their teachers, and build good student-teacher relationships before the school year even really starts.”

In grade 6, students visit Öland, and in the years following they visit Gotland, Smögen, and Lassekrog, ending with a trip to Åland in 10th grade.

“We started the trips to enable our students to get in contact with Swedish culture, history, and geography,” says Barbro Ahl, Dean of Students.  “That’s why we go to different places in different grades as well, so they can see several parts of Sweden.”

For sixth graders Misa and Saruul, the trip was an opportunity to explore with old friends while making new ones.

“It’s very exciting,” Saruul exclaims. Her brother also attends the school and she says she has been waiting to go on such trips “for a long time”.

“Because like, when you’re a sixth grader, you don’t really know what you want to do because you haven’t done it before. And then you get to go somewhere new.”

Misa, who has attended schools in both the US and New Zealand before moving to Sweden, agrees.

“We didn’t have trips at my other schools,” she says. “So it’s really fun that I get to do them now. I get to know my classmates better now. You are able to work better with your new friends since you got to know them.”

Students stay in cabins on the trips, and are generally assigned a room with an old friend or two as well as students they don’t know – yet.

“They try to put us with some new kids and some old too,” Saruul explains.

“It’s fun and very satisfying. I was placed with an old friend and two new friends, two people I was imagining I would become friends with. And I did, it was very nice!”

And while the girls have a lot to say about the educational benefits of the trip – including a petting zoo, campfire nights learning about constellations, strolls through the forest and a visit to Kalmar Castle – they agree that the best part of all is getting to know their classmates.

“We mostly make friends on the bus and in the cabins,” Misa says. “The bus rides and all the activities we have together are the best.”

Nicolas, a tenth grader who just returned from his fifth ‘Sweden trip’, says the programme has been a transformative part of his education.

“Since we go on trips at the beginning of each year right after summer break, it really helps you refocus on the school year,” he explains. “It’s like a chance to wriggle into a new mentality and prepare for school – yet in a fun, social way.”

Of course, staying up late in cabins with your friends can lead to some rough morning museum visits, Nicolas admits – but the relationships built on the programme are well worth the temporary sleep shortage.

“You get to meet a lot of new people, and you get closer to your teachers as well,” he says. “You get to talk to them in an informal way and get to know them.”

Science teacher Schulte says the trips are his favourite part of the job, giving him an opportunity to teach kids in a unique learning environment.

“It’s a great way to start the programme, with something so significant for the kids,” he says, keeping a watchful eye on the playground as he goes through scribbled notes he’s been given by doting students.  “Providing new experiences for the kids, it’s great.”

His own favourite experience from this year’s trip was the teachers’ spontaneous decision to treat the kids to a walk through the forest followed by building a massive fire on the beach and roasting marshmallows.

“We threw that together because we felt the kids needed something different, something authentic – and it was a highlight for many of the kids as well,” he says.

And the results of the four-day trips have far-reaching effects, echoing throughout the school year and setting the tone for future experiences.

“The main thing is to start the year by developing good, strong teacher and student social relationships, straight away,” he says. “With all kids, if you have good, clear expectations, there are no behavioral issues. It’s effective learning.”

This article was produced by The Local in partnership with Stockholm International School. All pictures from Stockholm International School.


‘Everything is on hold’: The ups and downs of working in Sweden in summer

Office fruit disappears, trains and restaurants shut down, and it is impossible to get anything done if it involves a Swedish colleague. The Local's readers report from Sweden's deserted summer offices.

'Everything is on hold': The ups and downs of working in Sweden in summer

Many foreigners in Sweden end up deciding it’s best to do as the Swedes do and take at least three weeks off in July, as it’s almost impossible to get normal work done. But this doesn’t work for everyone.

Some would rather take time off when the climate is best for a trip back home. Others haven’t been working long enough to earn the holiday. Others are simply too new to understand what July in Swedish offices can be like. 

We asked readers who have worked through most of July to tell us about their experiences. 

READ ALSO: Why do Swedes take such long summer holidays? 

What’s it actually like in the office? 

“Life kind of stops, everything is on hold. You have no one to sign off, approve, help, assign or complete tasks,” reported Sebastian Perreira, an IT worker based in Stockholm. 

“The office is empty, chat is silent, the business is completely on pause,” agreed Sara, a marketing manager from Italy. Elie, a railway engineer from France, estimated that only a quarter of those who normally work in her office are present. 

It’s not just the human contact and the chitchat that disappears. Many workplaces put office cleaning and other basic services on pause. 

“There is a lack of sanitation in office spaces as everyone is out on vacation and also all maintenance work, such as building ventilation etc, is done during this time which makes it difficult to sit in the office space sometimes,” said one respondent, who preferred not to be identified. 

“They stopped the supply of bananas…” groaned Hongru, a statistician from China working at Linköping University. 

An engineer working in construction. Photo: Sara Winsnes/Imagebank Sweden

What about getting to the office and time off after work? 

It’s not just reduced services in offices themselves, but in the entire city. 

“Many restaurants I usually go for lunch are closed for five or more weeks during the summer,” reported José, a software engineer from Mexico, something Perreira agreed was “absolutely ridiculous”. 

Santhan, a PhD student at Umeå University, said that he had struggled with “being alone at the end of the day instead of doing evening sports or activities”. 

“Rail maintenance works are planned when the majority of Swedish people take time off,” said an electrical engineer from Ireland. 

Karan, a cyber security consultant from India, said he had been struggling with the “reduced frequency of public transport”, but Shubham, a mobile app developer, said that he actually liked the fact that public transport was “not too crowded”. 

So could anyone get anyone work done?

“It’s definitely challenging,” reported Mia from the UK, saying she felt “totally uncomfortable” with all the decisions and deadlines that “no one will really remember after their five to six weeks off”.

“Honestly, getting anything done is a struggle, so I focus on individual projects and self-development that I can do by myself. Also, even Swedes who are working aren’t really doing anything.”

“At our company, all of the developers or engineers are Swedish, so they naturally tend to go on vacation all at the same time, sometimes for up to eight weeks,” said Danny, a software developer, also from the UK. “When something goes wrong and a fix is needed urgently, we either have to hack something together without them or use the on-call engineer, which costs a lot of money.” 

One foreigner spending her first summer in Sweden working for a German multinational said she had found the main task assigned her impossible to complete.

“I am supposed to organise a board visit for the end of September. I was only able to book the hotel rooms, but not able to discuss the catering as the responsible person was on holiday. I also need to book restaurants for two evenings. But the restaurants which could fit the requirements of this important meeting are closed, I was not able to visit them, discuss the menu or complete the booking. Next time, I will start the process in March!” 

Foreigners dealing with colleagues in other countries often faced the biggest problems, as few of the their overseas colleagues understood the situation they were in. 

“Foreign clients don’t understand Swedish culture. Or worse, think the Swedes should change their culture,” said James, a construction industry manager from Scotland, who said he was struggling because “the support we need is not there and the team is struggling” and “nobody cares.”

Another foreigner who worked in software development said the big issues came when changes needed to made to another team’s software, as there were “usually no people to go to”. He expected more problems come after the summer. 

“Most of the work done during summers, or even a few weeks before summer, needs to be reexplained again and again after vacationing colleagues return back with vacation brain fog.”

Perreira said that foreigners stuck alone in offices were often left with “boredom and a feeling of guilt”. 

“You either have nothing to do, because things are very slow, or you need to feel peer pressure but there is none, since everyone is off. So you end up accomplishing very little and feel guilty afterwards.”

Some work better

Some respondents, however, said they found summer an unusually productive time. 

“I can get a lot done without the usual meetings being necessary,” said Danny. “Swedes tend to get upset if they are not invited to a meeting, but I’ve found that they don’t mind at all if you take a decision yourself over the summer.” 

Nayane, a Brazilian business intelligence manager, agreed that the best thing about the summer was “no meetings”.

“I’m working with some very specific things that require no interaction with other people, so it has been great!”  

One software tester from eastern Europe said she had benefited from “a lot of focus, way less distractions with meetings and interactions and the possibility of dedicating most of the time to technical tasks not involving communication”.

“Without being bothered, you can actually accomplish a lot of things from the backlog,” Perreira added. 

Alice, who works in delivery and analytics, agreed that summer offered an opportunity to tick items off the to-do list that she never usually had a chance of getting to.

“You get the time to do things you’re not getting to in usual circumstances, like time-consuming projects that are not top priority,” she said. 

Some find it hard to work but don’t care

Several respondents agreed that it was hard to get much done, but didn’t seem too concerned.

Charan, a data manager from India, said that despite a “slightly higher workload”, the long days meant he could both work and feel like he was on holiday. 

“It is very much possible to enjoy the Swedish summer and work simultaneously,” he said. “The long, sunny days and relatively warm weather makes it easy to work and during times of less work to do, it is also possible to connect from a holiday destination and keep working.”

Steve, a UX designer based in Stockholm, who is not using his real name took this to approach to an even greater extreme.

“It’s the best country to work during summer, especially in a corporate environment,” he said. “Since everyone else was gone and workload amounted to almost nothing, I ‘worked’, but really was just taking vacation.” 

He didn’t even stay in Stockholm during his working weeks, he said, instead enjoying “a normal travel-filled vacation”. 

A summer cottage. Photo: Fotograferna Holmberg/TT

How many will take the summer off next time like a Swede? 

Nearly two thirds of our 42 respondents had worked throughout the summer, with most of the rest taking only two weeks off. 

Several said their experiences of working this summer had convinced then to take a Swedish approach next summer. 

“I will take four weeks off next year and not feel any guilt,” said James, the Scottish construction manager. “I will take time off during the summer at the same time as the Swedish people in my office,” agreed the Irish electrical engineer. 

But others, particularly those from India, felt that as summer was the best time to be in Sweden, they wanted to save their travel months for January and February, and the post-Monsoon months in October and November, when the weather is cooler in India.

“It is the best time to be in Sweden, and the worst to be almost anywhere else in Europe,” explained Perreira. “So why waste vacation days now when you can go to Southern Europe in autumn or spring, and to Southeast Asia during the winter?” 

He said he didn’t plan to take the summer off Swedish-style unless absolutely forced to by future family circumstances. 

“Unless I start dating a Swede and end up being forced to spend half of my summer in a cottage in Skåne, nothing will change.”