Sciences Po: A Melting Pot of Different Cultures or a Clash?

By Jessie Williams

It has been two months since the first flock of exchange students descended on Reims; some from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Canada, and India. With a new report stating that foreign students studying in France are the least satisfied in Europe, I asked several how they’ve found settling into their new home and what they think of the Sciences Po community…

Emily Enright, a 21 year-old Melbournian, says that although she misses the coffee in her hometown, she is enjoying la vie Française. In particular, she was surprised at the diversity of the students at the university. “It’s been really eye-opening for me to meet people from literally every corner of the world, like there’s a girl here from Tajikistan,” she says, eyes wide with excitement.

“It’s crazy how many different nationalities are represented, and I think that engagement with people from all over the world will be very educational for me, as someone who hasn’t engaged with that many cultures before – in Melbourne it can be quite homogenous.” Enright adds jokingly; “Hopefully I’ll get good at pronouncing people’s names.”

For Sophia Birchinger, 21, a long bus ride from Germany was the beginning of a year-long adventure. Like Enright, she finds it inspiring to be part of an international community. “You can fill a whole semester with the histories and background and lives of the different students. I think it helps me to consider the different backgrounds, as well as cultural differences, between universities.”

Birchinger believes her time at Sciences Po will benefit her career, as she wants to eventually work within an international organisation. “I think it’s really important to be able to work with different international backgrounds – to accept it and not to judge it.”

But is this an international university that’s accessible to all? Enright doesn’t think so; she finds it “dismaying” how many of the students who attend are from fairly privileged backgrounds. “For a prestigious university that is what you’re going to expect, but it is kind of concerning that what you’re finding is a kindling of the future political elite, rather than people from all different kinds of life,” says Enright.

With tuition fees up to 10,150 euros per year for an undergraduate degree, and 13,900 euros for a masters, it is clear that financially, Sciences Po is not an attainable option for all. Indeed, about only 5% of French university students study at France’s elite Grandes Ecoles.

Enright is not afraid to be critical of the university, saying she was disappointed by the disorganisation in terms of the administrative process and student housing. But both Enright and Birchinger are glad they chose to study here, particularly in Reims, which Birchinger describes as a “beautiful” and “welcoming” city.

Kateryna Gordiychuk, a Ukrainian studying in Canada, also loves Reims – despite finding it sleepy to begin with. She says; “I love that we live in a very small place but that allows us to do a lot of things at the same time, there’s a lot of stuff going on here and I’m very grateful for that.” Gordiychuk likes the internationality of the city, but she says it’s ironic as she feels the Sciences Po campus has “this divide, this line that separates the international students and French students”.

She believes this division isn’t just limited to Sciences Po but is apparent all over France. “I don’t mean that there’s not enough people who are diverse, there’s definitely a lot of people of different nationalities, of different origins, or different ethnicities, but I think there’s less acceptance of those cultures, because there’s this very important idea of being French and being nationalistic about being French.”

Gordiychuk does think she could have done a better job at integrating; “it’s already the middle of the semester now and I don’t think I’ve done enough. I could’ve tried to be really in the midst of the French community.”

Enright hopes that her time here will benefit our wider society in the future. She explains: “We can have interests on a political scale and we can be fascinated to hear about how someone from Venezuela and someone from South Africa both love to ski, and isn’t that amazing. But I think if we can achieve some kind of deeper networking that will enable us to make significant change in our lives through connections and contacts that we’ve made here and ideas that we’ve shared, and relationships that we’ve fostered, I think that’ll be a really good achievement, even if we don’t see the product of that achievement for 15, 20 years, I think we’ll be starting something here that will be really positive in the future.”

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