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October 12th 2006
Published: October 12th 2006
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At last! Classes started here on Monday, October 9, and I now feel as though I have some higher purpose in life than simply strolling around Paris gawking at all the sites. Seriously, though, I've had five weeks to settle into my new home and I feel like I'm ready to tackle some academic subjects. Sometimes the brain gets greedy for hardcore, fact-based knowledge...which will come in droves now, I'm sure.

The French Higher Education System...and where I Fit In

To preface this blog, I will explain that Sciences Po is the common name for the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (IEP) and that I attend the Paris campus of the IEP. There is a hierarchical AND a regional distribution. Some of the other campuses are in Strasbourg, Lyon, Bordeaux, Poitiers. The IEP is an 'grand établissement', NOT a université, because in France a université is supported by the state and is required to adhere to certain uniform admission standards. Sciences Po wanted to establish stricter standards and thus opted-out of the university system.

Likewise, it is not a 'Grand Ecole'. The Grands ecoles are institutions of higher learning which each have a special focus, and there is generally one national school to which only the best students are accepted. Thus, the grands ecoles are extremely difficult to get into; the most famous one is the Ecole National de l'Administration (l'ENA) which produces probably half of France's politicians. Sciences Po is sort of in a category of its own but is widely regarded as the best political science school in the country. So I am a very lucky girl to have bypassed all the domestic qualifications and sneaked in via the back door!

The Programme International

At Sciences Po I am officially in the Programme Internationale, along with about 400 other international students.. I am in the deuxieme année (second year) of a three year course, because the french undergrad system doesn't correspond directly to the 4-year American program. Each of us takes a total of 6 courses per semester, amounting to roughly 30 credits per semester. There are two semesers. This first one runs from Oct. 9 2006 until Jan. 31? 2007, and the second will run from late February to the end of June.

The course structure is as follows:

-2 cours magistraux (large lecture courses) + 2 conférences de méthodes (which accompany the lecture and are taught by professors)
-2 enseignements d'ouverture (electives)

The meat of the curriculum is in the cours magistraux (sing: cours magistrale) which have about 80-250 students. You have one 1.5 - 2 hour lecture a week, and that's it. Plus lots of reading. At the end of the semester you write a 2-hour long essay (dissertation) on a subject that you've discussed during the course. This grade constitutes roughly half of the entire course grade.

The other half of the cours magistrale is the conférence de méthode. It's here that the majority of the work/evaluation takes place. The equivalent of a discussion group in the States (but with a lot more significance), you have a 2-hour session once a week. My two conférences have 20 and 24 people in them, respectively. Both are (theoretically) restricted to foreign students in the Programme International only, but I already met two french students in one of my obviously this is not a hard-and-fast rule. They slipped in somehow! The lecture classes (cours magistraux) are open to all students in the Premier Cycle (undergraduate program), so I'm mixed in with french students there. Not a whole lot of opportunity for interaction, unfortunately, but I already met a couple of nice french students who were very friendly.

(Anecdotal aside: I also sat next to a french guy who sat through an hour-long intro lecture and took only a half-page of notes, so...some similarities to the American university system. They are not all chronic overachievers here.)

A 'Typical' Sciences Po Student...Rapidly-Disappearing!!!

The majority of the students at Sciences Po are from the upper crust of french society, privileged throughout their educational development because their parents had the money to send them to expensive prepatory schools to prime for the extremely-difficult 'Concours' (entrance exam.) Less than 10%!o(MISSING)f french students are admitted to the 1st year of the Premier Cycle. Beat that, Princeton.

(The number rises a bit for applicants to the second year).

All Sciences Po students are required to spend their third and final undergrad year abroad. This is a relatively new policy that was initiated by the current president of the school, Richard Descoings. He recognised the need to integrate the establishment in the rapidly-shrinking globalized world and took the first steps to reach out to the rest of the world. (We international students are the other half of the exchange...sort of like interesting specimens brought in to show the (sometimes arrogant) French students that other approaches DO exist outside of the bubble they grew up it.)

Another radical new aspect of Descoings' vision is the welcoming of minority/underprivileged students to the institution. Possessing a reputation as the 'cradle of the elite', and the 'fast-track to the political/administrative posts of the nation', Sciences Po is trying to change its image to attenuate the resentment it receives. (A little spit-and-polish never hurt, right?) The thrust of Descoings' inititiative is the introduction of a new admissions programs which makes certain exceptions for applicants applying from a ZEP (Zone d'Education Prioritaire). These ZEPs are mostly banlieux (suburbs) around Paris which are: very poor/have high unemplyment rates/majority immigrant populations and are generally poverty traps. In an effort to reintegrate these troubled zones into French society, the French government has singled out a few and dedicated extra funding/attention/teachers in order to boost the academic achievement of these students. Sciences Po is 'helping' this efforts by opening its doors to the products of these programs.

It's undeniable that the ZEP students are equally intelligent and successful once they arrive at Sciences Po, but the whole concept of the system sparks some's the old question of 'help the many' or 'raise the few' that pervades all socio-political decision-making. It is very similar to the Affirmative Action/Title IX programs in the US, except that here there is no consideration of race/ethnicity/religion. In the eyes of the French state, all citizens are identical (in order to protect the cherished 'égalité) so the only distinction made between applicants is economic/social/territorial. However, the fact remains that the vast majority of ZEP students are of Muslim descent, mostly from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) or West Africa. (Think: ex-colonies). France has done a poor job of integrating these immigrants, despite the supposed neutrality of the State, and the result is the restive banlieu with its poor/unemployed/under-educated/angry 20-something males resentful of society. These are the same people who rioted in the streets for 20-something days last year and burned 1000 cars, largely because they felt marginalized from French society. Hopefully the ZEP will ameliorate this problematic situation, but it remains to be seen. Thus far, the program has privileged a few lucky, bright students but left the majority untouched. I doubt that this situation will change until France finds some way to acknowledge the ethnic/national origins of its immigrant population while still satisfying its insistence on 'equal-opportunity' (which I see as a kind of willful blindness). The demographic traits of France's most troubled sector is a public secret, but one that cannot be properly debated until it is acknowledged by the government. In my opinion, this is one of the most critical AND the most difficult challanges facing the next government. (Next Presidential election in March 2007!)

Back to My Courses ; )

Whew. That was a long digression. Now back to my courses:

I am taking, for my two cours magistraux:
-Monde arabe contemporain (Contemporary Arab World)
-Grands enjeux scientifiques (Major Scientific Issues at Stake at the Beginning of the 21st C.)

For my two enseignements d'ouverture, I have:
-French (obligatory!!!)
-Discovery of the Opera (purely for my own amusement!)

The two elective courses are not worth as many credits and are not as hard. So I am looking forward to them! Each one has one 2-hour class per week. All in all I have only 12 hours of class per week and effectively a 5-day weekend: I start Monday nights at 5pm and finsih Wednesday night at 5pm. Europe, here I come! LOL.

A quick taste of the courses:

Monde arabe is a broad survey of the historical/religious/societal development of the Middle East and its socio-geopolitical topography today. I think it will be fascinating. Good, entertaining lecturer, fascinating issue, pertinent in today's world...I can't wait. The conférence will be harder, because it is there that I have to:
-do a 10 minute oral presentation on the Sykes-Picot agreement that will be 40%!o(MISSING)f my grade
-prepare a book synopsis with a group and present it orally (also 10 minutes, with accompanying 2- sided handout) (20%!o(MISSING)f grade)
-gather documentation for a topic we will be given (this will be easy and fun) (20%!)(MISSING)
-prepare a dissertation (essay) plan during one hour - detailed outline (10%!)(MISSING)

But really, that's it. Plus lots of preparatory reading, of course. I don't think I will have as much work to do as I do at Georgetown. Which is kinda nice.

Grands enjeux scientifiques is going to be similar to the Gateway course I took for my major at Georgetown last year. Biotechnology, property rights, energy issues, nuclear and bioterror threats...all things that I have already studied, but from a different perspective. I'm looking forward to covering the familiar terrain in a new vehicle. (French-colored lenses?) The fields change so rapidly that they never get boring, so I am looking forward to this class as well. My prof is a Socialist Party deputé in the National Assembly, and we had a well-known scientist named Axel Kahn come to talk to us about genetic engineering during our very first course, so the mesh of science and politics ought to be well-balanced. Very much like my cherished STIA 305!!!

The conférence for this course is taught by a 28-year old who looks like he's my age but knows his stuff. Funnily enough, he's the hardest to understand because he talks so fast (ah, youth) but apart from him all the profs are easy to understand. I have a 2-page technical document due every week for this class (on the topic of the week) and an oral éxposé (also 10 minutes...see the Sciences Po pattern?) on global warming in January. Next week I have another of those book reports for this class...a fiche de lecture...but I still haven't received the name of the book yet from him. Gotta love French (in)efficiency.

Discovery of the Opera...well, that is just fun. Two field trips to the opera, 4 guest lecturers who work for the National Opera of Paris, excerpts from various operas and ballets...what better way to pass 2 hours on a Tuesday night? Hardly have any work for this class...I prepare an interview with one of these invited lecturers, and present a 10-15 group presentation on a theme of interest, and that's pretty much it. It's a lix of French and Int'l students, and I already know about 5 of the 24 kids, so that's a good start.

I haven't have french yet because it doesn't start this week (no idea why)'s french. No surprises there. My french IS getting better - oral and written, and comprehension is pretty fluent now. So hopefully the progress continues!

I have been sitting in front of this computer for way to long now, when I really should be reading (yes, I've already been to the library) but I think I'm going to bed. Tomorrow I begin my 5-day weekend with:
- sleeping in
- a planning session for my upcoming eight-day trip to Provence in November
- an obligatory room cleaning
- a trip to the theater to see the play 'Jackie' (as in Kennedy)
- and a trip to the Monoprix for some groceries. Maybe a walk in the park in the Bois de Boulogne on Friday...maybe a soccer match on Saturday night...oh how I love city living!

Over and out in Paris...



24th October 2006

From a french that used to study in the states
Waow, that was a pretty deep and thorough amalysis of the french system/ society. As a french student that has been studying in the states, I am very interested in learning what an exchange student from the states might think of living/ studying in my hometown. Although the french really are (in)efficient - as you rightly put it Robyn - and have a slight tendency not to overwork, they do know how to enjoy life properly. Good luck for during your year in Paris, do learn french (you'll keep it for the rest of your life), and travel, travel, travel. Best to you. Adrien.
21st November 2006

Very interesting. We, the French students of sciences po, are really curious to know what the international students think of our school and city. Keep it up.
14th December 2006

Robyn, as an international student myself I always love to read others experiences in the big bad world. Very thorough! Far exceeding anything I ever post. In second year at National Taiwan University at the moment but will be heading to Sciences Po on exchange in a year! Very excited. Good luck with everything! Gaz~
13th October 2009

Admissions - French Studnets
I am interested in hearing about the admissions process to Sciences Po if you are a french student, French, from a competitive Lycee, sitting for the Bac this year. Is there a personal interview, a written personal statement and should we just assume you really need to take a year of the prep classes to get in? Is there a stronger prep. school than others if your primary goal is Science Po? Thank you.

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