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First Impressions - Guest Blog by Hannah Storm

Posted on: 2nd March 2017 | Category: Guest blog

I'd seen Surval in the pictures: a fairytale castle nestled in the Alpine mountainside high above the shimmering waters of Lake Leman. But the reality was even better than the fairytale. 

Winter had shed its snowy shawl on the land by the time I Ianded in Geneva and as I sat on the train and we skirted the lake, the sun was dropping; dripping diamond rays across its watery expanse. 

Surval is just over an hour from Geneva, the name by which the lake is also known, granting easy geographical links between the school, the city and for air travel. It also means this capital of cosmopolitan culture and international institutions - be they organisations like the UN and its manifold agencies or bastions of business and centres of further education - is close enough to allow Surval and its students to access and benefit from the very best in many fields.

And so it wasn't long before I arrived at the local station of Montreux, home to the world-renowned jazz festival every summer. 

It's hard not to be struck by the beauty of the Belle Époque architecture. But even that pales into relative insignificance in comparison with the mountains that tower like pine and powder clad giants, stretching to the heavens, inviting your eyes and spirit upwards.

As we drove the windy roads of Montreux higher and higher towards Surval, I was reminded of the Romantic poets I studied at university, of Byron, Coleridge, Shelley and Wordsworth and the way they were inspired by the grandeur of the Alps. It's hard to see how anyone could not be inspired daily by being here. 

Each classroom within the building that houses the school has a different view of its neighbouring natural wonders. And yet, the setting is just one aspect of what makes this school so very special. 

Surval is a small, exceptional and extraordinary establishment. 

Its history dates back 55 years and though its beginnings may have been modelled around the traditional finishing school, today it is its own model of modernity - and yet one that still holds true to the most valued vestiges of its past; I was fascinated to learn that Etiquette is still taught, along with subjects such as International Relations and business. 

Housed in a former hotel, the school prides itself on its family atmosphere - girls and teachers share a special bond based on respect, encouragement and compassion. 

But it's also a family with a few differences. It's a global family for starters - attracting girls from around the world. Venezuela, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine Saudi Arabia, China, Kazakstan, and the USA are countries from where the current Surval family stems.  In a country that's home to many agencies of the UN, this is a United Nations in microcosm. 

Some students follow in the footsteps of their own family members. Others are the first. No matter if they are the next or first generation to attend, every girl is treated as the unique individual she is: someone for the school to nurture towards making the very best of herself, someone who, with the help of Surval, can figure out and fulfil her dreams. 

In today's world, Surval sets each young woman on her path to tomorrow - a path where she's encouraged to take flight but also supported if she stumbles. 

Every girl is different. But in a school as small and bespoke as this, they can be. 

Girls come for differing amounts of time. The highly popular summer and winter camps provide an immersive experience for those who want to learn all manner of activities - from the French language to skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer. But beyond that they also nurture friendships that last a life time while giving participants a soft and short-term entry into the boarding school experience. 

Many come back to these year after year; others return as full term students. Those who spend the academic year here can study through the American high school system alongside the iGCSE and U.K.-based educational systems, proof again if it were still needed that this is a school that caters to the needs of the individual and not the masses. It has an extremely popular Liberal Arts programme too, which proves a particular draw for those coming for a year once they've finished school in their home countries. 

Beyond the classroom one of the big draws is the array of international travel opportunities they have. Just back from Marrakech, over the coming weeks some of the girls will be going to Amsterdam, London and Kenya. This latter is a trip during which girls will work alongside the charity Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for vulnerable communities.

Just because many of them are privileged doesn't mean they can't be grounded, practical or pragmatic young women. This trip and other activities and programmes planned by the school aims to instil in Surval students a sense of how they themselves might be agents for change in the wider world and closer to home. As future leaders in which ever arena they choose, their rights and responsibilities are key qualities they learn to shoulder and share.

The snow was melting as I left after my two days in Surval, though there was still plenty higher up the mountain where the students were heading for their weekly Ski Thursday.

Turning back to admire the building and seal my mind tight around its memories, I smiled. Earlier I had sent a photo of the school to a friend. 'You sure it's not Disneyland? Looks great,' he replied.  No, I replied with a broad smile on my face. It's not Disneyland. It's very real and hopefully those who come here will be able to carve a path to their own happily ever after. 

Hannah Storm
Journalist, mother, world traveller, Surval friend and girls' education advocate


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