Hedwige Serot Almeras, a student at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland pursuing a master’s degree in international strategy, participated in the Fall 2019 Darden Exchange Program. Before she returned to Europe for the winter holiday, Hedwige (second from right in above photo) shared more about her Darden experience in the exchange program:

How did you hear of Darden and what made you decide to study abroad here on exchange?

My father is a French diplomat so I traveled to and lived in several countries growing up, including the U.S. I spent a few of my high school years in Maryland and I knew I eventually wanted to come back to the U.S. to study. UVA was familiar to me given its proximity to Maryland, so when I began my exchange program search through St. Gallen, Darden was my top choice. I knew I wanted to have the smaller college town feeling during my exchange experience, and not many top schools offer that like Darden does being located in Charlottesville. Darden was also a strategic choice for me, as it is a competitive top U.S. business school but not very widely known in Europe.

How was your academic experience at Darden similar to or different from St. Gallen?

I really enjoyed my experience at Darden. Darden’s case method style of teaching was a new approach to learning for me and certainly different from the teaching style at St. Gallen, and in Europe more broadly. The case method taught me a completely new way to approach participating in classes. The fact that we are required to participate in class – through sharing our opinions and asking questions – shows that the professors are more concerned with our learning than just our grades. The professors at Darden are so approachable and they truly care that you do well, but more importantly that you learn on a personal and professional level.

Some differences between Darden and St. Gallen include the low number of group projects I had at Darden, which surprised me as I had at least one in every class I took at St. Gallen. Another difference would be the proportion of international students – my Master’s program at St. Gallen is more internationally diverse, with about 30 different nationalities represented among 50 people.

What are some lessons you learned at Darden that you will continue to apply in your future career?

My graduate degree is a bit different than the typical MBA degree, so after completing my semester at Darden I now have to complete my thesis at St. Gallen before I start working. I do not know exactly what I want to do for my career, but from the very first minute I stepped foot into the Darden environment I knew I wanted to fully embrace every personal and professional opportunity Darden offered me. I knew Darden would challenge and inspire me to grow more confident in myself and my abilities, and while I haven’t answered all of my own questions about my future, I learned to ask myself more questions that will shape who I am and what I want to do. I signed up for many clubs, such as Graduate Women in Business, Latin American Student Association (LASA), Global Business and Culture Club, Adam Smith Society and the European Society, and tried to go to every event available to me to learn as much I could and to make the most of my time here.

Hedwige with other Exchange Program participants at the first Darden Cup event of the year

What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Darden?

Some of my favorite memories include the many fun events happening all the time at Darden – parties, game nights and international social events like the Global Food Festival and LASA barbeques. I took advantage of Charlottesville’s various fall activities, like apple picking, wine tasting at nearby vineyards, and hiking – a huge perk of coming to Darden compared to going to a university in a big city! I went to New York and D.C. during the break between academic quarters and also visited Richmond with some other exchange students. I attended many sporting events, which is a very American thing. I love the university culture around sports and I appreciated how Darden incorporates that into the Darden experience through the Darden Cup. I think the section rivalries through the Darden Cup is a great way to bring everyone together and make the class feel like a community. The second year students were so welcoming and helpful, and I am grateful that Darden assigns exchange students into sections because I really like my section mates! Overall, I loved everything about my experience at Darden. I loved living in the U.S. during high school and it was a dream come true to be back in the States for the past four months.

What are some of the challenges and benefits of participating in an exchange program?

The case method is one major challenge for international students coming from a culture or educational institution where participation during class is not the norm. As a shy person, this especially challenged me. Going into the first week of classes, I worried about what the case method would really be like; but after the first week, I found it much easier than I expected. The atmosphere in class was not judgmental and I learned that it is okay to acknowledge that not everything I contribute in class is going to be groundbreaking. I challenged myself to speak at least once in every class and now I am much more confident and less self-conscious of what I say before saying it. The environment that the professors and students created in the classroom enabled me to develop this skill and practice it to the point where it comes more naturally to me now.

Other practical challenges I included finding housing in Charlottesville, getting all of my courses approved for credit at St. Gallen and knowing the recruiting limitations we had as exchange students at Darden. Other than these challenges, my exchange program experience at Darden was full of benefits! This was my first exchange experience and I do not regret it one bit. I embraced the experience and did as much as I possibly could. My experience was so rewarding – I only wish it were longer!

What would you say to students who are considering coming to Darden on exchange?

Darden was exactly what I wanted from my exchange experience – I chose Darden for the classes, the case method approach and the small American college town community. If Darden matches the criteria you are searching for in a business school, then go for it and don’t hesitate because it will be awesome and incredibly rewarding.

Some of Darden’s exchange students on the last day of the fall semester