Student Spotlight: Meet Our American ChangeMaker

“I kind of realized that I was missing something, that I was unprepared, and that I couldn’t make the changes I wanted to make.”

This year, KaosPilots Switzerland (KP SUI) welcomed its first American student–Sydney Hayes from St. Paul, Minnesota. We sat down with Sydney to learn about why she chose to study at our alternative change-maker education, the differences she sees between her American university experiences and the ones she is having at KP SUI, and the kinds of eye-opening experiences she is having with her international team mates and new lifestyle in Bern.

By Natalie MJ Orozco

Tell us about yourself.
Well, my name is Sydney Hayes. I am a 25 year old American girl in my first year at the KaosPilots Switzerland. I was born and raised in St. Paul Minnesota. I spent the first 18 years of my life there. When I was graduating from high school, I chose to go to the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I got an undergraduate degree in international relations and Spanish. I had SO much fun in Madison! It was really cool and a really different experience that what I had growing up. When I graduated from university, I had a really clear vision of what I wanted to do which was work in the nonprofit sector. After graduating in 2014, I moved out to Washington DC, got a job with a nonprofit called the Arc of The United States doing disability work. I was working in fundraising and development and this was what I wanted to do, and that was to do work that’s meaningful and mission-driven. And I kind of realized that I was missing something, that I was unprepared, and that I couldn’t make the changes I wanted to make. I did a lot of research. I did a lot of soul searching. And now I’m here at KaosPilots SUI since September!

How did you hear about KP?
Washington DC is a very international city. Where I was living and working, I had a lot of different girlfriends and guy friends who were going abroad and coming back from living abroad. They had international degrees and would be involved with the Peace Corps and things like that. I really explored a lot of different options, whether it was going into the Peace Corps and volunteering in South or Central America. Then this idea of a further education; a masters in international development or something like that.

When I fixated on getting another degree, I was looking on Google one day for “alternative business schools in Europe” or something like “schools for change-makers”. I found out about the KaosPilots, and I found an opinion article about a girl who went to the Danish school. So I did a lot of talking with different people and a lot of online research. I went to several meetings at the Peace Corps headquarters in DC. I talked to different people who had done different things and tried to figure out “where can I possibly learn the most?”

How does it feel to be the first American student at KP SUI?
You know, when I hear this question– it’s so funny because it’s not something that I’m super conscious of all the time. It’s kind of something that exists in my subconscious. Because KP SUI is so international, and there are people from all over the world, it doesn’t really feel crazy. But it also is very fun, like I’m bringing the American perspective in a lot of conversations. It’s also a culture people are very curious about. In many ways, it definitely diversifies the circle that I sit in.

What’s an example of a time you felt that it was relevant to bring your “American” perspective?
The most interesting thing is that in America, when you’re 18, you move away from your family and go to university. We have this time-crunch in America to stick to the mold and stick to a career. And that’s not the experience the people in my (cohort) team had, or most people have! In other countries and other parts of the world, they really think about “what do I want to do” and “how can I know myself?” and then they make a decision about where they want to go to university.

What are three things that you see make the KP SUI education different than a traditional American university setting?
The first biggest thing is that it’s a team-based education, so i’m being educated as Sydney Hayes, team member of SUI 6. All of my classes, all of my lectures, most of my projects, client works, etc. is being done in a very close-knit team of individuals. And I think that is extremely different, even if you’re majoring in the same thing as other people. At the University of Wisconsin, there were 40,000 kids. That’s mind blowing! All of my learning and training ground is built upon this team setting, and that’s big.

The second one is checking in and checking out every day. And it’s like my favorite thing ever. At KP, you start every day with a morning practice and a check in, and at the end of every day at 4 pm we all check out together. This is done in the circle with someone leading it. This is such a mindful way of beginning the day and ending the day. We answer different questions, we speak our intentions, and we just touch base with each other. We just speak the truth. We didn’t have this at Wisconsin, and some people don’t even have this with their families. It’s revolutionary!

The third one… We all sit down and have lunch together every single day. There’s a kitchen at the school. Yeah, people run out but they run out to the market and get food to come back and cook it. An hour is a long time to eat, and I can’t remember, when I was in DC, that I took an hour for lunch. Here, we consciously stop at 12pm and we start again at 1pm. People cook huge meals, they eat really slowly, they have conversations, drink coffee, take naps, etc. It breaks up morning and afternoon lectures. It’s big. The culture around food and exchanges are a huge thing, too.

It’s this huge long table with benches we all sit at, the mountains are in the background, there are flags blowing in the wind… That’s KaosPilots SUI. Everyone’s welcomed; little kids [from the kindergarten school downstairs], coworkers, everyone.

What skills have you learned in your first year that you see yourself applying already?
There are so many! My first semester, I just learned to really build a tool box of different project management skills, but also projects in general; I really built this beautiful toolbox of things I can pull out when I’m working in a team, with a client, on a project. They’re invaluable, since they range from so many different areas and studies. It kind of feels like you have something to fall back on, those tool when you’re working in different settings and situations. Every time I learned a new skill, I was like, “Why didn’t I have this at work? Where were these? I needed these!” Whether it was holding an agenda for a meeting, or holding a research question, and the Golden Circle… There are so many of them.

What is the Golden Circle, for people who don’t know the concept?
The Golden Circle is amazing, so if you don’t know it, Google it now. It was created by, Simon Sinek and it’s based off of his own experience of losing passion for the work that he was doing. There are three layers to the circle; the outermost is “what”, and that is to say that almost 100% of people know “what” they do. The next layer is “how”, and you’ll find that less and less people know the “how”. The last circle is the “why”, and that is the hardest. It’s asking yourself a tough question. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, at a nonprofit, or a business man, it’s so important to know who do you wake up in the morning to be. We learned this as a tool last semester, and this semester we actually did this as an assignment. This was really important to creating our own businesses and getting in the entrepreneurial mindset.

What do you hope to do with your certificate when you leave?
The small things change on a weekly basis, but I still see myself doing a lot of mission- driven work; floating around the nonprofit sector or organization that are doing good in the world. Right now, i’m really thinking I want to help organizations who are mission- driven get realigned with their mission, and help individuals like myself who are working in those organization to be sure that they’re in the right place and find their own “why”.

What are you enjoying about Bern and Swiss living so far?
I love everything about living in Bern. It’s so funny because being an American in Switzerland, a lot of people ask “Isn’t Bern like living in some small village?” For those of you who don’t know, Bern is the capital of Switzerland, and its about an hour outside of Zurich. It is quite small, but it’s beautiful. This city is stinkin’ gorgeous! There’s an old town, an enormous blue river that intertwines throughout the city, and it truly feels magical. It’s also super international. So it’s small, but at the same time, it’s big. Because I’m not from here, everything is new. I’m exploring and meeting new people. Yesterday, I was at the park and I met two Americans! What I love most is being in a place that I’m unfamiliar with! It’s a little out of my comfort zone, but I’m really okay with that. That’s why I came here.

Getting to know Swiss culture is challenging, but you also feel really proud of yourself when you accomplish things like figuring out how to buy stuff at the grocery store, eating some Swiss chocolate, or going to eat fondue with the locals.

What advice do you have for American students considering studying in Europe, or considering getting a non-traditional certificate like the ones KP SUI offers?
If it’s something that you’re really thinking about, and you’re just sitting behind the computer doing research, take ACTION! Reach out to people who have done it! Don’t be afraid. I remember reading this article and feeling like it was a dream school, but that I would never get there. Eight months later, I was applying to the school, I was coming to the assessment workshop, and a month after that, I was moving here. I think when you and your mind are telling you that this is something that you’re interested in, follow that curiosity. Look deeper and uncover what’s there. It opens so many doors, you learn about yourself, and you meet so many new people. There is nothing really like this in the US, and it’s amazing.

Sydney Hayes is our first but hopefully not last American student at KP SUI. If you or someone you know is looking to learn more about our education, or apply to our school, send us an email at We look forward to growing our international student body and sharing more student spotlights with you.

2 Replies to “Student Spotlight: Meet Our American ChangeMaker”

  1. Hi

    Great inspiring article on Sydney whom I met a few weeks ago at an event in Zurich.I am trying to reach her.LinkedIn is not proving effective.Would you kindly ask her to email Lorraine, former Soanish teacher in Zurich.Thank you. Pls do not publush my email addtess, but you may forward it to Sydney.Thank you.

  2. Dear Lorraine, apologies for the long delay, just saw your e-mail to Sydney now. I have forwarded it to her today. Warm regards, Matti Straub-Fischer, KaosPilots Switzerland

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