Nothing to lose, so much to gain

When Aiyana Signer decided to participate in the Geography Olympiad, she didn’t yet know where this path would lead her. Now, she’s in her fourth semester of studying geography and has friends across the globe. A short portrait of a former Olympiad participant.

In order to solve the exercises for her classes, Aiyana often listens to podcasts of her lectures. In many of the classes Aiyana attends, these digital resources were already available before the University of Zurich switched to remote learning due to Coronavirus. (Images: Severin Nowacki)

In spring 2017, teachers across Switzerland asked their students: „Who wants to participate in the Geography Olympiad?” While Olympiads in mathematics, biology or physics had been around for years, the Geography Olympiad was still relatively unknown. This was also the case at Aiyana’s school in Wil. The Olympiad immediately sparked her enthusiasm, “because you’ve got nothing to lose by just completing a 20 minute multiple choice exam”. Aiyana decided to face the challenge, still unaware that the four best Swiss participants would be travelling to the international Olympiad (iGEO) in Canada.


A few weeks later, Aiyana had made it to the top 20, still in the race for a ticket to Canada. As her ambition intensified, she was also dealing with a completely different challenge: Writing her matura paper. This had top priority for Aiyana, but she did not miss out on the final round of the Geography Olympiad. To her own surprise, she made it into the Swiss iGEO team.



At the moment, Aiyana is studying mathematics and geography at the University of Zurich. While being a maths teacher was her dream job for a long time, she was not so sure about her minor. She has a knack for languages, so she considered studying Spanish or English. “My English skills were a real asset in the Olympiad”, Aiyana says, “but I can’t really see myself teaching English as a career.” Looking back, the choice seems crystal clear: «I was always interested in geography and I genuinely enjoyed learning more about it in preparation to the Olympiad.” By now, Aiyana has even made geography her major. It’s the subject’s interdisciplinary quality that makes it so diverse and attractive to Aiyana. Her aptitude for analytical thinking is reflected in her favourite sub-disciplines:  Remote sensing and geographical information systems (GIS). There, she can combine her logical way of thinking and her technical skillset with geographical matters. She can also imagine doing an internship in this area.


Aiyana is a dedicated and open-minded young woman, who loves to try new things and strives to get these values across to future university students. She is involved in the “buddy programme” of the University of Zurich, which allows high school students to get an impression of university life and visit lectures. She herself went to some mathematical lectures before starting her studies and would recommend this to all freshmen. “Mathematics at university is very different from what it’s like in school.” A day at university in advance can help debunk false expectations.



For those who are still in school or just starting university, she has some valuable advice. “Get out of your comfort zone! You’ve got nothing to lose!» That goes for school and university as well as the Olympiads. Even if you don’t have your hopes up about getting to the next round, the intermediary steps can be great experiences. Participating in the Olympiads always comes with new friendships. Ever since going to iGEO in Canada, Aiyana has been in touch with other Olympiad participants from Belgium, Slovenia, Australia and elsewhere. Together, they already travelled Switzerland and  planning for the next trip has started. Which European country they will visit has yet to be decided. For Aiyana, the next destination might actually be the United States. She wants to visit other friends – and bring back the special brown sugar she needs to bake her legendary chocolate chip cookies.


Did Aiyana inspire you to try the Geography Olympiad? The first round starts on May 7th! 


Aiyana is 20 years old and has been studying mathematics and geography at the University of Zurich for four semesters. In 2018, she participated in the Geography Olympiad and made it into the national delegation. Together with other Swiss youths, she travelled to iGEO in Quebec, Canada.


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About the author: Juliane Krenz, chair of the Geography Olympiad and researcher at the department of environmental sciences at the University of Basel

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