A Tale of Two Campuses, Part One: Sciences Po

A Tale of Two Campuses, Part One: Sciences Po

Published on October 3, 2017

Editors’ Note: This is the first of a two-part story exploring the experiences of Columbia-Sciences Po dual B.A. students. Read Part 2 here

It started with a flyer in the mail.

During her senior year of high school, Wan Yii Lee received many of these. She sometimes thought about how excessive it was for American schools to send these little pieces of paper all the way to Singapore. But, for the most part, they didn’t make much of an impression on her.

But this flyer was different. It was from the Columbia–Sciences Po dual B.A. program, something she’d never heard of before. That might have put some people off, but it intrigued Lee. She Googled it, but apart from the program’s website, there wasn’t much information on it out there. Again, she didn’t balk; she was still interested and decided to apply.

“I know there’s a lot of information online about what is it like to be at Columbia, but for the dual B.A. program, there just isn’t that much,” Lee, now a junior in the School of General Studies, says. “I kind of went in without having any person to talk to about what was it like. It was kind of like a bet.

Wan Yii Lee, a junior at the School of General Studies, studied at Sciences Po's Le Havre campus. (Yasmine Akki / Senior Staff Photographer)

Wan Yii Lee, a junior at the School of General Studies, studied at Sciences Po’s Le Havre campus. (Yasmine Akki / Senior Staff Photographer)

When I started Googling the Columbia–Sciences Po dual B.A. program, I had a similar experience. The first four links go to the program’s General Studies website, which features a rotating set of nondescript images–Columbia from above; happy Pantone-292-robed grads–as well as some vague promotional copy describing the program:

“The Dual B.A. Program between Columbia University and Sciences Po offers a global undergraduate educational experience—a program with an international character not only in its academic coursework but also in its practical application.”

As I sift through the results, reading brief press releases and one-response Quora threads, I try to imagine applying to a program with such a lack of outside information–I try to imagine doing what Lee did.

I spent the months between my senior year of high school and my arrival at Columbia reading Bwog articles on the relative value of living in John Jay or Carman and Spectator articles about Emma Sulkowicz and WikiCU pages on everything from Low Library to St. A’s. I had access to an extensive student record that described this school, its students, and what my experience would be like.

When I told people I was coming here, they knew what I meant. I knew what I meant.

This isn’t the case for dual B.A. students. When you tell someone you’re splitting your undergraduate experience between two different schools, people generally don’t know what you’re talking about. And as a student entering the program, you barely know yourself.

From Pilot to Program

The dual B.A. program began as an outgrowth of the already-entrenched partnership between Columbia and Sciences Po, the leading social sciences university in France. The two schools began their relationship in 2000 with a dual degree graduate program, wherein students spent one year at the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs and one year in New York at the School of International and Public Affairs, and come out with a dual master’s degree from both universities.

This dual degree program was part of the Alliance program, a partnership between Columbia, Sciences Po, the École Polytechnique, and Panthéon-Sorbonne University. The association of universities started out with a focus on their master’s programs’ compatibility, but the infrastructure allowed the Columbia–Sciences Po dual B.A. program to develop.

Alessia Lefébure, who was director of the Alliance program until this year, explains that Sciences Po and Columbia had particular overlap; Lefébure notes that both schools had a graduate program taught fully in English, as well as a “very global vision that one should teach not French things in France and American things in the U.S. but keep a broad perspective.”

So Columbia and Sciences Po paired up, experimentally at first. Only five students graduated in the pilot class in 2011.

Sciences Po already runs several dual B.A. programs with a variety of different universities. Partnering with Columbia, then, fit neatly within the existing structure of their curriculum. Sciences Po mandates that all its students study abroad in their third year. Instead of simply doing one year abroad, then, these five “test students” would spend two years at Columbia and, if all went as planned, emerge with a degree from each school.

In its first iteration, the program worked a little differently to the way it does today; instead of applying to the dual B.A., students applied just to Sciences Po and later had the option of applying to spend their last two years at Columbia. Eventually, the pilot program became a full-on, official dual B.A. program. The 27 members of the dual B.A. program’s first official class graduated in 2015.

The dual B.A. program provides students with an opportunity to have two distinct college experiences in just four years: It’s a way to link a social science education with a liberal arts one, small-town living with big-city life, French culture with American. Two years at Sciences Po, two years at Columbia, two bachelor’s degrees. You’re not a Sciences Po student or a Columbia student—you’re both.

The application process is nearly the same as the one I went through as a Columbia College applicant, though it is run through a dual B.A.–specific portal. You write a two essays: one about why you’re interested in the program and think it would be a good fit, and a second about personal failure and what you learned from it. It’s all rather run-of-the-mill for an undergraduate application. You also submit transcripts, recommendations, and standardized test scores, and put down a first and second choice for which campus you’d prefer to study at. Dual B.A.applicants are then all reviewed by a joint committee of Sciences Po and Columbia representatives.

Dual B.A. students who enter the program as first-years study at one of three campuses: Le Havre, Menton, and Reims. Each campus has a different geographical focus––Le Havre specializes on Europe and Asia, Menton on the Mediterranean, and Reims on North America and Africa. Reims is the largest of the three towns at 185,000 inhabitants, followed by Le Havre at 175,000, and finally Menton with only 28,000 people. The campuses themselves are even smaller. Paris is an exception, with 3,000 students, but Reims has 1,000 students, while Le Havre and Menton both have 300.

For Lee, the choice to apply wasn’t just rooted in the novelty of the program. She was also interested in improving her French and getting to experience both a focused social sciences education and a liberal arts one. Sciences Po was slightly less familiar to her than Columbia, although this isn’t the case for everyone who applies.

For students who already have a connection to France, this educational pairing is more conventional. Côme Lefébure, Alessia Lefébure’s son, who is half French and attended a French high school in New York, explains that for him, going to France for school didn’t feel like that much of a risk. He already knew what to expect, spoke the language, and knew that Sciences Po was, like Columbia, a respected institution. “I think it’s more stressful for American people who don’t really know what Sciences Po is,” he says. He is now a junior at General Studies.

Côme Lefébure, a junior at the School of General Studies, studied at the Sciences Po campus in Le Havre. (Yasmine Akki / Senior Staff Photographer)

Côme Lefébure, a junior at the School of General Studies, studied at the Sciences Po campus in Le Havre. (Yasmine Akki / Senior Staff Photographer)

Language is certainly a key factor in students’ choices to attend the program. Especially for students whose education or family life has already combined French and American influences, a program that continues that educational mix is an obvious choice. Romane Thomas, who studied at the Sciences Po Reims campus and graduated from the dual B.A. program in 2017, is fluent in English and French and thinks of herself as bicultural. Similarly to Yii Lee, Thomas received a letter in the mail about the Dual B.A. program. Instead of being intrigued, though, she was delighted. “I can have an education that really reflects the identity that I’ve built through my education,” she says. 

But the program is more than just a French-English combination. Students go to Sciences Po because they’re interested in understanding the ways in which countries around the world are related. There’s a huge focus on learning languages: Every student at the Menton campus learns Arabic. Every student at Le Havre who doesn’t already speak an Asian language learns Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Hindi. Students enrolled in the Europe-North America program at Reims learn English, Spanish, German, Italian, or Arabic.

My conversations with students give me the impression that this isn’t a requirement they fulfill grudgingly; Lee speaks fondly about getting the chance to learn Bahasa Indonesia. Not only is the undergraduate population very diverse, but it’s also full of students who came to Sciences Po because they want to learn about other cultures, both in the classroom and from their friends.

Diego Filiu, who graduated the dual B.A. program in 2017, is French and grew up in Paris. For him, the dual B.A. program was a way to get an education at Sciences Po that felt more international. Sciences Po has an entrenched relationship to the École nationale d’administration, one of the most elite grandes écoles in France (82 percent of the people admitted to ENA through their external exam came from Sciences Po in 2016), and therefore to French politics.

Filiu says, “I think the rationality for a lot of French kids is having the best of Sciences Po, because it’s the best that the French system has to offer, but also having an experience outside of France.” While only a small portion of Sciences Po students end up attending ENA, Filiu suggests that the dual B.A. program caters to people who have political aspirations that extend beyond France.

But as the partnership between these two countries seems like the best of both worlds, Columbia is a fundamentally American institution, just as Sciences Po is a fundamentally French one. The academics are distinct, and the student life is different, too.

Moving in and Growing Up

Lee’s trip to Le Havre to begin her first year was a fiasco; her train from Paris was delayed, and by the time she arrived in town, it was too late to book a hotel room. She and two friends she was traveling with headed to Le Crédit Lyonnais, a bank on the main street of the town, hoping to at least set up their accounts. There, they found members of the Bureau des Élèves, Sciences Po’s students association, waiting, ready to help them. “They seemed to be very prepared for the fact that soon we’d be homeless,” she recalls wryly.

Lee is calm–not quite subdued, more blasé–but her smile grows slowly as she tells the story.

Though Lee had never met him before, she ended up staying with another dual B.A. student named Vincent Gu, now a senior in General Studies, whose roommate was a BDE member and had found Lee at the bank. She stayed there for the next five days as she looked for a place of her own.

That night, Gu’s roommate cooked Chinese black bean noodles. “Home cooked food is a good way to make people comfortable,” Lee observes.

Lee didn’t tell her parents she was relying on the kindness of strangers for housing. First off, she was staying with three men, something she would never have done at home. “Back in Singapore, I couldn’t even hang out with my guy friends in my room,” she explains. She also didn’t want her parents to worry.

But when Lee’s homesickness started to kick in, her parents could tell something was wrong, and chided her for keeping it from them. They told her that if she didn’t tell them what was going on, they couldn’t help her. “That was when I felt most homesick in the first couple of weeks,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t handle it, I guess.”

Eventually she found her own apartment, on the tree-lined, shop-filled Avenue René-Coty. But she was still without water and electricity for a week.

When we talk, she has the air of a person in charge of her life, even though she’s only just arrived in New York. She’s carrying a bag full of groceries; she’s wearing a pretty sweater. I can imagine her homeless in a strange French city, but she gives off such an air of competence that I have trouble imagining her being very stressed about it.

Of the six dual B.A. students I spoke to, when they went over the things they don’t share with their Columbia classmates, they talked about the sheer organization and independence required of them to live as French students do. While American universities retain a hands-on relationship with their student body (both a holdover from the era when these schools acted in loco parentis and a function of the much higher cost of education in the United States), French schools tend to barely involve themselves in their students’ lives outside the classroom.

“I won’t say I loved how pretty my school was or how many facilities we had,” Lee begins. She talks quickly and matter-of-factly. “The town was not very pretty. The weather was not very nice. The bureaucracy was very annoying. We have no coaches or anything for extracurriculars; it’s all from ground zero.”

Another complaint I heard about life at Sciences Po came from Vincent Gu, Lee’s one-time savior. He explained that Sciences Po was laser-focused on academics, sometimes to the detriment of other activities. Gu was interested in Model U.N. while he was at Sciences Po, and talks about opportunities to go to cities like Lisbon and Rome for conferences–opportunities that were frustrated by Sciences Po’s inflexibility around excusing students from class for such activities.

But extracurriculars are just one area in which French schools tend to be more limited than their U.S. counterparts. French universities also rarely stress the kind of amenities that students expect in the United States—things like dining hall and gyms, which serve as signs of an American university’s status, are either nonexistent or purely functional in France.

Still, certain services for students exist; there’s the Centre régional des oeuvres universitaires et scolaires, a government-funded program that runs cafeterias and subsidized housing. Because it’s run by the French government rather than the universities themselves, CROUS tends more to the functional than the flashy (no John Jay-branded waffle irons to be found). And students often cook for themselves rather than eating at CROUS.

University housing is also limited; many students rent apartments on their own, which tends to be both more comfortable and, especially in the small towns where the dual B.A. students study, incredibly cheap. Romane Thomas, who studied at the Sciences Po Reims campus, paid 300 euros a month for a room in a three-bedroom apartment that had a kitchen, living room, two bathrooms, a balcony, a mezzanine, and a laundry room.

As an 18-year-old Sciences Po student coming into your first year of college, you’re not just coming into a new academic environment, but also learning how to live on your own–paying your bills and figuring out how to set up the internet are simply part of the curriculum.

For students who come to Sciences Po not yet fluent in French (only English proficiency is required for the program, and non-native speakers take French classes throughout their two years), this transition can be taxing. French was Lee’s third language. “I could do basic things,” she says, “but I would still not feel I could express myself fully when I first went there. It was very, very uncomfortable.”

Of course, this transition is easier for students for whom the French language and university system aren’t wholly unfamiliar. Thomas is French and came to school already fluent in the language and comfortable with the culture. While the transition into living on her own in France was easier on her than it was on Lee, Thomas notes, “When I arrived, I realized that a lot of American students needed help with their administrative issues, getting electricity in their apartments, getting internet in their apartments. A lot of the people who spoke French helped the students who didn’t speak French to resolve their issues, which was really cool.”

This kind of organic collaboration comes in part from the smallness of the Sciences Po campuses. There are so few students that everybody truly knows everybody. Lee says the community was so close-knit that she’d actually feel surprised if she saw someone she didn’t already know.

With a tiny community comes an automatic support system. Everyone butts up against the same problems: finding housing, navigating the French bureaucracy, simply being away from home for the first time. But everyone also comes together–and is simply forced–to complain and work through things together and help each other when they can.

Filiu, who studied at the Menton campus and graduated from the dual B.A. program in 2017, says, “All the issues of isolation, depression, were never a thing at Menton. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but I never felt it—and I think that says a lot. If someone would have been that way, people would have known. There was no way for you to hide away from the others. It was really a family.”

While life at a small school in a small town might feel stifling, that’s also sometimes a positive thing. Lefébure, the junior at Columbia who spent his first two years at the Le Havre campus, says, “In these small cities, you can’t just order food on the internet or whatever. There’s maybe one place that sells shitty pizza.”

But while every dual B.A. student I spoke to who described the total discomfort of being plopped down in France to navigate daily life in an unfamiliar language, they then went on to claim that that experience was one of the huge boons of their time at Sciences Po.

“No one’s gonna take care of you. If you’re homeless, you’re homeless. The transition is really hard,” Lee says. “But after that, I felt like, if I’ve gone through that, I can do a lot of things. It’s something that you survive out of.” And Lee didn’t just feel personal accomplishment; she also felt that struggling to figure out how to live in France underlaid her friendships in Le Havre. She says, “Maybe it’s the harshness of the conditions that make you feel closer to the people there.”

Lee talks about her entry into Sciences Po as a kind of polishing. “It makes me think of when you grind sandpaper against something,” she says. For her, the experience wasn’t additive but instead revelatory, peeling back (albeit painfully) the surface layers to show her that underneath, she had the fortitude to create a life from scratch in a foreign country with no help.

The forced integration into a new culture becomes a common experience, one that binds the students together. Whether you’re French or American, your first year at Sciences Po often marks a departure from a structured, relatively dependent family life to one where you’re left to sort everything out. Since there’s nothing else to do, relationships with other students become the main activity.

An International Education in France

Despite the fact that students are forced to handle the daily logistics of their own lives, and despite the apparent lack of activity in the cities in which students find themselves, Sciences Po is in many ways a demographic idyll from the real world. The campuses’ international focus means that these little close-knit communities, small towns within small towns, are incredibly diverse. Sciences Po students overall are 47 percent international; at some of the campuses, this figure is even higher.

It’s uncommon to have such a high proportion of international students at such a small school. It’s also uncommon to bring so many people from around the world to such small towns. Menton is the French equivalent of a so-small-you-don’t-know-its-name retirement community in Florida, but the Sciences Po campus there has nearly triple the percentage of international students as Columbia, where 17 percent of students are international. In some ways, Sciences Po students are getting the diversity of a huge city alongside the tight-knit community of a small town.

This diversity bleeds over into the classroom. Lefébure says, “We each came from different places, and we did not know what the others were thinking, and sometimes it was conflictual, but in the end you understand how to talk to different people and what they think, and it’s interesting.” Especially for a university that focuses on politics, this combination of a diversity of opinion and a student body so close-knit that people actually feel a responsibility and desire to understand one another creates a rich potential for real cross-cultural learning.

The stark differences between Sciences Po and Columbia are part of the reason why students apply to the program. It’s an opportunity to have two wildly different college experiences, to avoid choosing just one. But the gap between the two schools means that the transition in between them isn’t always smooth. At the end of their second year, dual B.A. students say goodbye to their apartments, their little French towns, their campuses where everyone knows everyone else, and come to a school with 11,000 undergraduates in the most populous city in the United States. They embark on a second huge adjustment, this time at Columbia.

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