Since 1987 our port city has gained an international school of allure: Rotterdam International Secondary School (RISS). The BOOR school is part of the Wolfert van Borselen School Group and attracts students and teachers from far and wide. Sinead Hatma (17, Curaçao) and Quentin Frisch (17, Switzerland) both follow the International Baccalaureate program that leads to an internationally recognized VWO diploma. We got to meet them!
Teachers from Chile, South Africa, the USA, Italy, Australia… Pupils from Cuba, Croatia, Venezuela, Spain, England, Mauritius, Brazil… Despite all the different languages of the school population, we hear animated conversations and a boisterous buzz in perfect English throughout the corridors of RISS when the bell has rung.
“Here's the library,” Sinead says, pausing for a moment. She and Quentin step inside. We are almost at the end of the tour, which led us past classrooms, offices, a room with billiards and table tennis and a cafeteria. Sinead points to the candy machine. “That's the vending machine I was telling you about.” She loves her school and could only mention one disadvantage in the interview: the vending machine that is constantly broken.
It is not a large location, here on the Schimmelpenninckstraat, but together with the junior campus on the Bentincklaan, RISS still offers space for about four hundred students. Pupils come here from abroad whose parents live and work (temporarily) in the Netherlands, or whose Dutch parents will soon be moving abroad and who would like to prepare their children for an international education.
Quentin belongs to the first group. He is originally from France but lived in Geneva, Switzerland all his life. The family moved to the Netherlands two years ago. Quentin: “My father trades for a large oil company. When he got the chance to work in the port of Rotterdam, he first considered commuting back and forth on weekends. But that ended up being too much hassle and soon we all decided to go.”
His parents suggested sending Quentin to an international school. Quentin: “You also have European schools in Rotterdam, and even French ones, but that was too unknown to me. I also had zero experience with an international school, but here I am! It took some getting used to - it's not a typical school at all. Even though I soon had friends here, I still felt homesick. Especially when covid came and all classes were given online…”
When he first moved to Rotterdam, Quentin decided to sign up for the youth orchestra. “I've been playing the trombone since I was seven. My parents took me to a performance once, where the children were allowed to try out instruments afterwards. I picked up the trombone and… was sold! We toured with the orchestra through Italy, Austria… In the beginning, I felt a bit lost in Rotterdam and then I realised: “I have to play here. Being a part of something, sharing a passion with others, is a good way to really feel at home somewhere.” Quentin auditioned and was admitted. “I have classes for five hours every Friday. That's quite a lot after a long week of school. At first I viewed it as another academic thing, as something for which I had to perform and be judged. Until the teacher said: 'See this as a place to grow. If you are not ready yet, we will look for ways to move forward.' That ensures more fun and development. It is now very rewarding.”
At RISS he now feels right at home. “Teachers are really involved with the students. We have confidants and coaches if you want to talk about something. They really want the best for you. Perhaps the best thing is the diversity in culture. All teachers are different, but guided by the same mission. They are very driven in their work. That also makes the contact beautiful and more profound; it sometimes almost feels like a family. That way you will always find a teacher with whom you have a connection, whether that is in the field or with art or music.”
How did the move to the Netherlands and the arrival at RISS shape him? Quentin thinks for a moment. “You learn that the world is small”, he concludes. “I was recently in a ski lift in Switzerland with people from Canada, Brazil, Belgium… We were all going to do the same thing, namely go down that mountain. Sure, there are differences, but that doesn't mean there have to be boundaries. School also contributes to this. Being here at school also teaches you that you can ground yourself anywhere, even if it may seem difficult at first. The world is open to you 'cause you're open to the world. It's not just "classes" either; there is also room for creativity, for community work. We look at all kinds of issues with a broader, more global view. Now for example with what’s happening in the Ukraine. What preceded it, what are the different perspectives and the interests? We also read books by African writers, or learn about Latin American history during the Cold War. Because of that way of teaching, subjects that I didn't find very exciting at first, are now suddenly very interesting. In fact, after my final exams I will study economics at Erasmus University.”
Friends and family thought Sinead was crazy when she announced that she wanted to move to the Netherlands for an International Baccalaureate. With the finish line in sight, why turn everything upside down for a gruelling journey in another country, far away from your family? Yet she did it, with the support of her parents. Because sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get where you want to go.
On Curaçao, the island where Sinead was born and raised, she also attended an international school. A conscious choice of her parents: “I have Hierchsprung, which is a congenital defect of the large intestine. In a normal school I would not get the attention and understanding I needed, my parents thought. Hence the choice for an international school. As the exams approached, I realized that this degree wouldn't get me far enough; I wanted an International Baccalaureate. Unfortunately that was not possible there.”
Because Sinead is ambitious. “I have always known who I am and what I wanted. The world is my oyster. I have never let my illness hold me back. As a child I danced a lot. Ballet, aerial…I've played football and rugby - after two concussions, my mother had enough of the latter. In Curaçao, I was vice president for an organization that organized beach clean-ups and gave plastic a new life. My parents also expect something from me, in the healthiest way possible of course."
Sinead has been going to RISS for a few years now. She lives with a nice host family. “I've really become independent,” she laughs. “I do my own laundry and I cook. I was not used to that at all, I was a spoiled girl at home. However, my big challenge is time planning. I had to learn to be disciplined with my (study) tasks and to go to bed on time. In the weekend I like seeing my boyfriend, there must be time for that. In the beginning, I was very homesick. When I recently returned after a six-week vacation on Curaçao, it really hurt again. I had to get back to work right away.”
Sinead is enthusiastic about RISS. Well, except for that vending machine. “The atmosphere is very good. I especially enjoy the diversity. The fact that students and teachers come from different backgrounds, and look at topics from different angles, makes discussions very interesting and profound. We are also extensively trained. In 'normal' secondary education you choose a direction after a while; not here. That means a lot of studying, but you also gain a lot of knowledge and can go in all directions afterwards.”
It is also nice to see how open RISS is to gap years, says Sinead. “The academic road is not the only way - people understand that here. If you want to do something different for a year, or do an internship, you can get all the help from teachers. Teachers really think along with you.”
The fact that Sinead is here today, full of energy and zest for life, is a miracle. “It has been very difficult”, confesses Sinead, “also for my parents - my life has been hanging by a thin thread. For a long time I was very tired because of the disease, I followed strict diets. I have had surgery several times. Often I felt like a walking disease, sometimes a ticking time bomb.”
How did that shape her? “I think my illness has made me incredibly grateful and open-minded. As a child, I already had a strong sense of empathy. I understood that there is nothing wrong with people who are sick; we are just different yet human. My experience as a sick child gave me the ability to see and understand minorities and the underdogs, and to stand up for them when they can't do it themselves. I can not stand injustice."
Sinead will soon choose to study law. “That's where my heart lies. You know that Dutch lawyer, Merel Pontier, who got an innocent man off death row a while back, after twenty years? She moved to America especially for that case and did a master's degree in criminal law there to be able to take up the case. I found her so inspiring, I even emailed her. I hope to be able to help people in the same way as she does. I also asked if there is anything I can do to help, such as a sorority or be a part of fundraising for the foundation. That would be wonderful!”