Eoghan O’Sullivan, Head of Alumni Relations at the International School of Geneva
Hanging in my office is a framed photo of Lord Mountbatten presenting the first International Baccalaureate diplomas in September 1971. It serves to remind me that I work for a unique institution: the student receiving her diploma in the photo is Peggy Ray, one of our alumnae, and the photo was taken in the iconic Greek Theatre (constructed by our students in the 1950s, but that’s another story!) on our La Grande Boissière campus.
The IB had its genesis here in the 1960s. It owes its development to a group of enthusiastic and visionary educators at Ecolint (as the International School of Geneva is commonly known). Foremost among them was historian Robert Leach, who was described by the IB Organization’s first director general Alec Peterson as “the original promoter of the International Baccalaureate”.
Almost half a century later, the IB programme is now offered in more than 4,000 schools globally, with over 140,000 students sitting the Diploma Programme exams in 2015. It remains at the heart of the Ecolint offer, with the vast majority of our Year 13 students across our three campuses graduating with an IB diploma. (A small number still take the Swiss Maturité programme at La Châtaigneraie, and students at Campus des Nations can also choose to follow the IB Career-related Programme.) In a typical year around 40% of Ecolint graduates leave with a bilingual IB.
Prepared for success
Ecolint and the IB are, then, inextricably linked. The programme’s strengths are clear and well-established: inquiry-based learning that develops students who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge. Research undertaken by Katie Wright at the University of Melbourne in 2015 found that the IB produces a range of enduring student outcomes.
“These include the development of international-mindedness and a broader perspective on the world, critical thinking, analytical and writing skills, and positive dispositions towards lifelong learning. More instrumental dimensions, notably advantages for university admission and earning advanced credits, were also frequently mentioned, as was the benefit of IB studies for university preparedness.”
The qualification itself is recognized by universities throughout the world, as is clear from a look at the university destinations for Ecolint’s Class of 2015. Within that cohort there are now around 140 studying in the UK, including 11 at Oxbridge, more than 100 in North America, including at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and 50 who have remained in Switzerland to attend university. A further 35 graduates are studying in other countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, India, Australia, etc.
Alumni of Ecolint, of whom there are around 30,000 living around the world, have followed a rich diversity of career paths. This is not at all surprising given the diversity of our student body: in a typical year the school welcomes students of around 140 nationalities with more than 90 mother tongues. Being located in Geneva and having close ties with the United Nations – Ecolint was founded in 1924 to provide an education to the children of League of Nations’ staff – means internationalism is in the school’s DNA. Wherever they end up, our alumni never lose their special connection with Ecolint, and they often proudly introduce it to friends as the birthplace of the IB.
Where are they now?
An examination of our own database coupled with data pulled from LinkedIn profiles provide useful insights into where our students go after they leave us. For third level studies, the top five subjects for Ecolint graduates (according to LinkedIn) are Economics, International Studies, International Relations, Business Administration, and Political Science. Our internal data reflect these same subject areas, with Engineering and Science figuring strongly as well.
More than 3,000 members of our alumni web community have shared information about their professional activities with us. Based on a list of predefined sectors, the most popular career area for our alumni is “Education, Teaching and Training”. Next are “Banking and Finance”, “Health and Medical”, “IT, Web and Telecoms” and “Management Consulting”. With such a large alumni community, there is naturally a long tail on the list of professions, including a liberal sprinkling of alumni throughout Geneva’s UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. (Take a look at the ALUMNOGRAPHIC 2015 on our website for an overview of where our alumni are to be found and what they are up to.)
Emma-Julia Fuller did her IB at Ecolint in 2006 and went on to study at Geneva’s Haute école d’art et de design – HEAD. She now runs her own architectural practice in Geneva. She says that the IB prepared her well for university: “It gave me the keys to tackle assimilating information, synthesizing it, revising and exam stress, as well as time management”. But it also helped lay the groundwork for her subsequent career.
“My IB focused essentially on visual arts and languages. The principles of composition, balance, colour, etc. translate to all sorts of creative professions including architecture. The language side was essential in order to learn how to describe and discuss the artistic work I was doing.”
While Emma-Julia tailored her IB subject choice to her desire to work in the creative arts, Jeff Belkora, Ecolint Class of 1986, took the opportunity to challenge himself in areas where he felt he didn’t have a natural affinity. Thus, despite being more of a history and literature buff, he took maths and physics at the higher level. His hard work paid off, and the confidence that gave him has served him well. He is now an Associate Professor at the University of California in San Francisco:
“Now my career, which focuses on consumer education and decision-making in healthcare and financial services, combines qualitative and quantitative areas. I continue to find the qualitative work (e.g. helping people clarify their goals and priorities) very easy and engaging. The quantitative aspect (communicating complex risk information to laypeople) is much harder for me, but thanks to the IB and my subsequent studies, I am well trained. Most important, I am confident that I can achieve some level of mastery of any topic with enough effort.”
For many graduates, this enduring impact of the IB is strongly related to a core element of the diploma programme, namely Theory of Knowledge – or TOK to IB aficionados. Students study the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know. Ian Holderbeke (Class of ‘95), for example, describes it as “a great way of introducing me to critical thinking concepts that carried me through university and probably continue to have an influence on me today”.
From IB to university and beyond
A theme that comes back again and again when discussing the impact of the IB with our alumni is how well it prepared them for university. Jeff Belkora found that he did well in courses that required self-directed research and writing, with university professors commenting positively on his level of preparation. “This was at a very competitive university, and they were used to seeing well-prepared students, so I think this was a positive reflection on the IB.”
It’s an oft-stated benefit of the IB. When she left Ecolint in 2001 to continue her studies at New York University, Claire Hobden found that the critical thinking encouraged by the IB, with lots of discussion and debate, helped her to adapt quickly. She also found she had more advanced writing skills than many of her freshman classmates thanks to the written work required by the IB.
Matt Balogh (Class of 1980), who runs a social research company in Australia, echoes this, particularly with reference to the Extended Essay, a core element of the IB.
“When I started my first degree, most of my co-students lacked experience in writing a long paper with references. The first university assignments of 1,200 or 1,500 words were challenging for them, but easier for me, having written a 5,000 word paper at school.”
Ian Holderbeke (Class of 2005) is another alumnus who found that he was much better prepared for university thanks to the IB. In addition to being more comfortable with long form writing, he remarks on the high standard of the science courses. Taking Chemistry and Biology gave him an excellent basis to study Medicine in the UK. He works now as a medical writer in the pharmaceutical sector and attributes his ability to structure his scientific writing “a solid basis developed during the IB”.
For Emma-Julia Fuller, the IB served to give a taste of how university studies would be in terms of moving from a broad to a more narrow focus and eventually picking a specific career path. For her the IB was an essential transition “between the wide variety of subjects in the earlier years to the highly specific choices you have to make when you go to university”.
Claire Hobden, who works now in Geneva for the International Labour Organization, reflects that her subject choice more than fifteen years ago has served her well. She chose to take Art, Geography and English at higher level and says that all three help her on a daily basis in her job. “If I were to change careers, I have no doubt that the lessons I learned from these three subjects would continue to serve me, and guide my choices.”
Jeff Belkora credits the IB with inspiring him to think about learning as a lifelong activity, where his “job as a student is to integrate or synthesize many different sources of knowledge”. The aforementioned Extended Essay was one key element, but also more generally the challenge of creating long form projects while working independently.
I mentioned already the global recognition that the IB enjoys. Matt Balogh offers a perspective from Australia where, from a situation in the early 80s where hardly anyone had heard of it, today there is broad acceptance. Each of the country’s six states runs its own school exams system, and while these have gradually become more aligned with each other, the IB offers national and overseas recognition. “An ever-growing number of schools are offering the IB as an option,” Matt says, “and several states have seriously considered adopting the IB over their own state system”.
Talking to our alumni about the IB, the high regard in which they hold the programme comes shining through. The vision of Robert Leach and those like-minded educators he inspired at Ecolint and elsewhere has given rise to an educational programme that, I have no doubt, makes the world a better place. The internationally-minded, inquiry-driven lifelong learners that graduate from Ecolint and the other 4,000 plus schools that deliver the IB programme are fully primed to make a positive difference in a myriad of ways. As Claire Hobden puts it, “wherever you go in the world, if you meet someone who also did the IB, you usually find a depth of understanding and ability to think laterally and cleverly about the world around you”. We’re proud of our school’s part in making that happen!