When I heard about the International Chemistry Olympiad 2023 (IChO23), I decided to volunteer and was delighted to be offered the role of Senior Team Guide. The International Chemistry Olympiad is a global scientific competition that brings together delegations from all corners of the world. This remarkable event welcomed 89 delegations, each consisting of up to four students and two or more members of the International Jury.
Volunteering at the IChO23 was one of these experiences that are so intense that words fall short in conveying their impact. This event encompassed countless enlightening moments, insights and emotions, extending beyond what can be expressed in a blog post. Nonetheless, I’II try to provide a glimpse into this extraordinary adventure, focusing on the theme of cultural exchange and how Swiss punctuality met many other cultures.
Switzerland’s reputation for meticulous punctuality played a central role in ensuring the event’s smooth operation, especially when it came to tight schedules and relying on punctual public transportation. However, adapting to this Swiss sense of timing proved challenging for many of our international guests. I would like to share one of the many stories related to this, which occurred during an excursion to the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), a research facility located an hour away from Zurich. PSI operates large scientific research facilities, including the Swiss Light Source, which we had the opportunity to visit in guided tours. On this particular occasion, I found myself accompanying one group with students from various Middle-Eastern countries, who were lagging behind the rest of the tour group. To avoid them getting lost in the facility, I urged them to hurry up. Some students quickened their pace, but not all of them understood my message. At that point, one thoughtful student approached me, saying ‘Tell them beserah’. I hesitated, feeling uncomfortable telling someone something I didn’t understand. The student sensed my indecision and ingeniously reduced his own pace, becoming comically slow. He indeed had me react as hoped, turning to him saying ‘Oh come on, now you’re slowing down…Beserah! Beserah!’ The student started straight away to walk enthusiastically fast. We all burst into laughter as we realized that the student had taught me an Arabic word to help them hurry up when needed. I later learned that beserah means ‘quickly’. My Arabic vocabulary was even extended that day with yallah, which means ‘let’s go’. Every time we met throughout the event we started to laugh remembering the scene and couldn’t help but shared the story with other students who also laughed along.
In that sense, the International Chemistry Olympiad was not just a celebration of Chemistry, but a lesson in unity, cultural harmony and the deep impact of understanding and embracing our differences. It taught us that, with a little laughter and a willingness to learn, we can bridge even the widest cultural gaps and work harmoniously to achieve our goals.