Eric Zürcher, a first-year student at Goshen College, spent the last year in basic training with the Swiss Air Force.
What do you miss most about your hometown of Baden, Switzerland?
What I miss the most is probably the public transportation. You can go on a train (in Switzerland) and go where you want. It always works perfectly and it’s always on time. That doesn’t really exist here that much. I feel like everything is a lot more distanced. If you want to go to another good city, you have to ride three, four, maybe even eight hours. Oh, and of course my family. I miss my family.
Do you miss the public transportation more than your family?
No, no. I miss my family; we are really close. They probably should have been the first thing I said.
In 2013, a referendum was held to abolish the laws in Switzerland regarding mandatory military service. Why do you think the vote failed by 73 percent?
Mandatory military is manifested in Switzerland’s tradition. I think so many people support it because they view it as a foundation they want to have.
So, are you supportive of it?
Before I went, I wasn’t at all. I was like ‘Why military? Why should I go there? It sucks. It’s so long.’ But, after I went there I honestly feel like everyone should go through it and do it.
Because I think it actually helps you as a person. It teaches you self-discipline. It teaches you to go through situations you don’t always want to do.
What mandatory military service did you join?
I was in the Swiss Air Force.
How did you decide on the Air Force?
One year before I went to the military there was a recruiting day. They made tests about your intelligence, your physical fitness, your medical health. You could have five preferences of where you wanted to go. So, you went there with a sticky note of preferences and reasons of why you wanted to go there. Then, they decide if you can go there or not according to your tests. The Air Force was my number one choice. I wanted to be a flight soldier.
Do you have any plans to go back to the Air Force?
For the next six years I have to spend three weeks in a repetition course. But because I am in the U.S. right now I am exempted.
What all did you do in your basic training?
The first seven weeks were basic training for the military. There were five categories you had to learn. One was how to defend yourself against someone physically. One was shooting. One was if an atomic catastrophe were to happen, how you should react. So they teach you how to react in a lot of situations. There was also a category where you had to defend the basement and how you should do it.
Defend the basement?
It just means you defend something, anything. You learn how to do it. After seven weeks of that I was in a special training for nine weeks where I got to learn how you should lead a group. I had a group and wherever the helicopter was landing, we had to be there and inform the pilot what is happening with the weather, whether or not he can actually land and etc. It was called Super Puma.
What was your favorite memory from service?
My favorite memory was my first seven weeks with my section. We all became really good friends and it was really fun with them. We made jokes all the time. I really enjoyed the first seven weeks the most because you had no responsibilities. You could do anything. You could just be the stupid recruit.
So how did you hear about GC?
I heard about Goshen College through a scholarship agency from Germany. During my military service last December, I contacted them because I thought the chance to play college tennis would be awesome. But, I never thought that it would actually happen. I didn’t think it would work out. They helped to find coaches or universities who were interested in me, in those 20 offers there was Goshen College. I began talking to Stan King, my tennis coach, and he helped me come to Goshen College.
Were you more excited for tennis or the academics?
I came here for the good academics, not the sport. I am more realistic. I don’t want to earn my money later with tennis. But during the season, I am obviously more excited for sports. The idea that you can pay your college tuition by playing sports, that doesn’t exist in Switzerland.
The tennis team is majority international students. What is that dynamic like?
There are a lot of different cultures I think it could have ended pretty bad because of all the different worldviews, but I think we have a really good team chemistry. It is difficult that we have eight really good players who could all be in the top six. It’s pretty competitive. That’s normal and actually helps the team.
Was it difficult adjusting from basic training to college culture?
When I first came here it was hard to study again, to think logically. I looked at military more like work than anything else, and now I am studying again.
What is the biggest difference between American culture and Swiss culture?
I feel like people here are much more open than in Switzerland. They can randomly talk to you and you can make friends really fast. What we say in Switzerland, though, is that we think it’s harder in the US to build a friendship that isn’t just superficial. We see it as a disadvantage. In Switzerland people are more distanced. It takes a lot longer before they will be your best friend, but then they will stay there forever. It’s hard to get a really deep friendship here.
Is there any thing that you just really hate about America?
The American food. I don’t really like it. Swiss food might be a bit healthier.
How aware are you of the Mennonite culture?
I know that they stand for a big community and a big family and everyone helps each other out and supports each other when they are in a bad position. I know that they are pacifists and believe in peace.
Yes, typically pacifists don’t approve of military, nor do they support war efforts.
The fact that they are pacifists doesn’t really affect me. I am not for war either.
So, you don’t support war but you support mandatory military?
Its hard to explain, but I feel like a country should have a military to defend themselves, but they shouldn’t attack other countries just to profit from them or to get an advantage. The worldview that you don’t need a military—I’m just not sure about that.
Interview has been condensed and edited.