“Studying at EPFL doesn't mean you can't have other interests”
Per Wingaard Sjøqvist combines studying for a Master’s in mechanical engineering with competitive freeride skiing. By making sacrifices, he’s able to juggle two demanding yet complementary pursuits.
Per Wingaard Sjøqvist spoke to us early one morning from Val d’Anniviers, where he prefers to ski. He’s spending time out on the mountain before starting on his Master’s project at Rolex. “Right now, I’m doing my own thing, following the whims of the weather and the snow,” he says. Before settling down to life behind a desk, Per took part in a Freeride World Tour qualifying event last weekend, finishing in third place.
The 24-year-old student of Norwegian-Swiss descent speaks four languages and spent his formative years moving around with his family before settling in Switzerland. Multi-tasking is something that’s always come naturally to him.
Per began skiing at a young age and entered his first competitive event at just 13 years old. Despite his time-consuming hobby, he’s always been a good student. “My parents agreed to pay for my equipment as long as I did well at school,” he explains.
The deal paid off: Per left school with a science baccalaureate, with a concentration in math, achieving an average of 17.57 out of 20.
Unsurprisingly, he decided to enroll at EPFL. He was drawn by the strength of the programs and the School’s “location close to the Alps.” Unusually, however, he opted for the standard course rather than the specialist track for elite athletes. “I enjoyed competition, but what I really loved was getting out there, riding and filming,” he says. “The specialist track might not have given me that creative freedom.
“The worst year of my life”
Per began studying for his Bachelor’s in 2013. It was a baptism of fire. “In my first year, I decided to stop skiing and concentrate on my studies,” he explains. “Big mistake. I questioned my choices. My confidence was shaken. I was at an all-time low, and it even affected me physically.” Out of practice, Per got injured and complications followed.
If he could do it over, he’d follow the advice he gives to younger students: “Study hard, but don’t neglect the other things you enjoy in life. And if your program allows it, consider spreading your first year’s credits over two years.”
That’s exactly what Per did after failing the first-year core block. He struggled with analysis and algebra and found that he wasn’t cut out for multiple-choice and true-or-false questions. “It was the worst year of my life,” he says. “I also suffered a shoulder injury. My parents were really worried. I considered throwing in the towel.”
A summer internship gave Per the time and space to reflect. “I realized that things weren’t so bad after all, even though I wasn’t doing well at school.” This was his lightbulb moment. “It’s easy to forget that, at EPFL, you’re surrounded by some of the top students in the world. Looking at the bigger picture helps put things into perspective.” He also realized that his extra-curricular pursuits – freeride skiing in winter and cycling in summer – and his cosmopolitan upbringing had equipped him with soft skills that employers prize.
Per repeated his first year and focused on “relearning how to think”. At school in France, he’d become accustomed to “learning things by heart”. But at EPFL, he says he had to develop “critical thinking skills.” He managed to strike a healthy balance between studying, socializing, and skiing on weekends. “Without sport as an outlet from study, I’m not sure I’d have carried on,” he admits. He made his first freeride film with a friend and began attracting interest from sponsors.
Per eventually completed his Bachelor’s degree in five years. He failed a few exams along the way and had to make sacrifices to reconcile his studies with his freeride career. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I’m incredibly lucky that I can catch a train at 7am, spend time out on the mountain, then head back to the Rolex and study.”
Per also recalls that, despite the tough times and challenges he faced, he never felt like he was competing with his peers. “Studying at EPFL is hard, but we’re all in the same boat. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie. We all push each other to succeed.”
Per was rewarded for his years of hard work when he started his Master’s at EPFL. He feels as though he’s finally gotten revenge on his Bachelor’s for all the pain it caused him. He particularly likes being able to choose his classes, focus more on industry than academia, and work with motivated professors. And he now has the chance to put his soft skills to good use. “I’ve always enjoyed group work and oral presentations,” he says. “In the Master’s program, you’re assessed constantly, so the work is more spread out throughout the year. That suits me much better.”
In the future, Per plans to continue splitting his time between sports and engineering, following the example of other elite athletes who have studied at prestigious schools and gone on to strike a healthy work-life balance.
In interviews, Per has no hesitation in donning both hats. “People ask whether I’ll be happy doing a desk job. I tell them I made it through EPFL. That seems to do the trick!”