Today I had French class in a mansion from the Grand Siècle ( the epoch of Louis XIV). Our classroom has parquet floors and an ornate fireplace with an enormous gilded mirror hanging above it. The campus of Sciences Po is based in a series of ancient mansions set around perfect courtyards for taking a café or a cigarette (if you are a part of the smoking majority here – I am not), but today for the first time I was overwhelmed by its history.
In 1872 a man named Emile Boutmy founded the great great grandfather of Sciences Po, L’école libre des Sciences Politiques, with the mission of creating a training ground for the “elite” who would one day run the country. Today, 134 years after its foundation, Sciences Po is still thought of as the training ground for France’s political elite. At least, this is what I found out through Internet research and reading the student handbook. Even learning about these lofty founding ideals meant little to me – I was much more concerned with the fact that I would soon be living the Parisian life than that I’d be carrying out a sacred French tradition.
Today, I am finally beginning to grasp what it really means to be a student of Sciences Po. For the past two weeks, everyone R and I have met has said “Ohhh Sciences Po,” with an inexplicable reverence in their voice. We were always tickled of course, but the application process for the International Programme was not a rigorous one, and we’d always brushed off the admiration.
I knew SciPo was a good school for political science when I applied, but frankly we’re pretty unaware in the U.S. I’d never even heard of this grand école of France before I read about the study abroad program on a UW website. For international students, the admissions process is fairly simple, mainly because Sciences Po requires its French students to spend their entire third year abroad. To facilitate and lessen the financial burden of the process, Sciences Po offers a direct exchange with all of its partner universities around the world. This in turn means there are quite a few slots open for des étudiants étrangères.
For French students, the process is significantly more daunting. From the age of two years old, French children are funneled into the long schooling process that will eventually determine the future of each. At the end of high school is the culmination of all previous schooling in the Bac (baccalaureate examination) to determine their eligibility for an école supérieur. With the Bac, you can not fail – a passing grade will guarantee you a spot in any université in France (the Sorbonne, etc.). In the U.S., going to a university sounds pretty darn good – but here, there is a drastic schism between the prestige of a university and a grand école.
With a university diploma, your schooling is considered a Bac + (however many years you studied after). Even a Bac + 8 (the equivalent of a doctorate) can have problems in France’s limited job market. With a diploma from a grand école (Sciences Po, for example), however, you have your choice of jobs waiting for you when you leave school. You could have a Sciences Po diploma + 3 and far more respect than a Bac + 8. The graduates of the grands écoles of France really are considered to be an elite force.
This knowledge is incredibly daunting to two U.S. students who had never heard of Sciences Po before application. We had both heard of the Sorbonne and its prestige – apparently compared to a grand école though, the Sorbonne is merely shrug-worthy. R and I are a little worried that we may have accidentally landed in a very wrong place. As relaxed as the international application process was, the international program is not separated from the rest of Sciences Po. The two of us are about to find ourselves competing for grades with students who have been preparing and working toward this for their entire lives.
Argh, is it too late to turn this year into an academic sabbatical? Learn by living, rather than be trained alongside the elite forces of France? At any rate, we’ll no longer be brushing off the “oohs” that come with any drop of the name “Sciences Po.”
** Every newspaper here had September 11th coverage today. It ranged from the incredibly tacky (Paris Soir featured huge color photographs of the towers crumbling), to some really interesting political commentaries in Le Monde and Le Figaro. Other than the media coverage though, nobody said a word about it until the beginning of French class this afternoon. One of the other Americans in my group was writing the date on his notes and said, “Oh yeah, it’s September 11th.” There was a collective somber nod, and that was it.
I feel like the date was more respectfully covered with silence here in France than in most gawdy “Patriot Day” tributes at home. That’s probably mainly due to the difference between a country that witnessed the attack and the country that endured it. In the U.S., Sept. 11th is a day of remembrance – here, it’s a reminder to always look toward the future. Use our collective history to guide today’s politics for a better future.