Jess en France: Life in French Academia

In light of France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, Sciences Po was established in order to promote a new generation of French politicians. It’s now one of the most well-known schools in France. It’s not a university in the traditional sense, however. There isn’t a contiguous campus or a cafeteria. It’s also a school that specializes in the political sciences, so there aren’t many classes that expand outside the discipline. But the most significant difference between Sciences Po and other traditional universities, in France or elsewhere, is that Sciences Po isn’t a university but a Grande École. In other words, within the French educational system, which is rather hierarchical, the pinnacle of French education is not a university but a Grand École, which is a step higher. For the sake of accuracy I’m synthesizing some external sources in my definition of Grandes Écoles, which essentially are highly prestigious and selective institutions outside of the public university system. Because they’re intensely competitive and difficult to get into, Grande École graduates tend to dominate the top echelons of the political and business sectors in France. Sciences Po in particular has produced France’s last five successive presidents. Needless to say the classes are difficult, the expectations are high, and the students here are quite impressive.

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Hard to pay attention in class when you’re learning in such a historical environment

I’m taking five courses, all of which so far have been some of the most interesting I’ve taken in college so far. My most demanding course is “The Sacred and the Profane: Critical Perspectives on Power, Ecstasy, and Violence” which is taught by a professor who used to work with UNESCO as an Enseignment (or educator). We’re currently diving into the works of sociologist Emile Durkheim, which is new territory for me academically, so it’s been relatively difficult for me so far to substantially contribute to class discussions. The class discussions as well are demanding in the sense that many students here are more familiar with classical texts and can provide compelling philosophical evidence even for the question or answers they propose in class. It’s been tough, but I’ve been enjoying the challenge—it’s certainly what Sciences Po is known for.

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Hard to believe this is classroom!

One of the other exciting parts about studying abroad is assimilating into a new social culture, and the best way to do this is to join a club. I’ve joined the “Refugee Help” association as well as “Stop and Go,” Sciences Po’s very own hitchhiking club. I wanted to get involved with the humanitarian side of politics and thought an association that is dedicated to doing exactly that would be a good choice to both meet French students and also dedicate my extra time to serving a cause the needs all the help it can get. On a less serious note, the hitchhiking club is a lighthearted group of French people struck by wanderlust and who share in excursions all across Europe. I’m going on a hitchhiking trip next weekend across France, so we’ll see how that goes. They’re two entirely different clubs but, experientially, will make my time studying abroad here all the more interesting.

À plus tard,

Jess

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