“I’d love to go to California,” a French classmate confided to me one Friday afternoon, over coffee at Le Basile. It was a few days before D-Day—February 13—when all Sciences Po second-years would learn which university they’d be shipped off to for their third year abroad. “But it’s always possible for the results to be released a bit before,” she added, gripping her mug in feigned nonchalance.
As far as I could tell, it was a weekend defined by the anxious exchanging of rumors and by the feverish refreshing of emails. Though I had only second-hand knowledge of the process, it was impossible not to realize, Monday morning, that the results were finally out. My Facebook page began to resemble the website of a travel agency. Melbourne—McGill—Syracuse—Singapore: a palpable globetrotting mood. Cover photos shifted to skylines and beaches, while classmates began already to swap plans for vacations and visits. The travel bug, always infectious, was spreading.
I had never seen anything quite like it. I have been told that studying abroad is not incredibly common for the French, in general. Yet at Sciences Po it’s the norm. As a relative outsider, I still find it remarkable that an entire university class—over a thousand students—simply packs up and clears out for a year. The sense of strangeness is exacerbated, for me, I think, because my home university sends so few students abroad. I know of other schools in the US where this is more common—small liberal arts colleges mainly, in the American heartland. Often they are composed of very few students in very small towns. By the third year, then, many are itching for a change. But of the 6,400 students at my university, less than 200 spent a semester or year abroad in 2009-2010—barely 10 percent of each class.
One could reasonably ask, should this matter? Here I am in Paris anyway, after all. But the disparity between these two norms doesn’t quite shrink when the plane hits the ground. In concrete terms, administrative matters are simply more irritating as part of a minority studying abroad. On-campus housing, for example—the norm at my college—is a process to be completed on campus, working under the assumption that everyone is in fact on campus. So any information about the deadline for next year’s housing forms never quite found its way to me. Luckily I found out through a friend at the very last minute that I needed to hand in a form, though I had to scramble to find a scanner and international fax machine to ensure I’d have a place to live (to the kind lady at the Rue de la Chaise DigiCop, je vous remercie).
At Sciences Po, meanwhile, there’s a greater awareness of the diasporic student community, precisely because it is so vast. There’s a greater awareness of the need to keep everyone in the loop. I may be seeing the system with rose-colored glasses, from my outsider’s perspective, but it seems to me to work quite well. The administration sends out periodic emails, letting third-years know that they need to apply for their masters’ programs, for instance, or sign up for language classes. It’s all very civilized: you know where you stand. Though everyone is gone for the year, there are links, thin but sturdy, maintaining a lifeline with 27 Saint-Guillaume.
Yet the difference is one of more than facts and figures and logistics: it becomes a distinction more pervasive, one of culture more than of procedure. Until relatively recently, studying abroad was actually looked down upon at my university. We have such incredible opportunities here, went the refrain: wonderful classes, brilliant professors, a plethora of student organizations. Why give that up to study somewhere else? This is changing bit by bit. More and more students study or intern abroad during the summer, in particular, even if term-time exchange programs are still quite uncommon. Yet I have found that in general, on campus, a certain sense of insularity remains: an assumption that the way we are taught is best, that there is not much to learn from going elsewhere.
It is different here, I think. It’s a given idea that learning a new language, that mastering the ins and outs of a new educational system, is valuable and even necessary. Everyone has done it or will do it before graduating, after all. This seems to lend a certain broad-mindedness, a sense of openness, to the academic culture. With a steady stream of internationals arriving and French students departing, it becomes more difficult to cling to the idea that there is one way of doing things, one intellectual path to be taken. It becomes more broadly accepted that perhaps the best way to fully appreciate a school, to take advantage of the opportunities at home, is to spend some time away.
I have to say, I’m a bit jealous of the second-years at Sciences Po. I wish I had a thousand students with whom to share the anticipation and euphoria—but also the difficulties and insecurities—of leaving home to study abroad. I wish I had a “Voyage Voyage” soirée to celebrate the fact that I’d be coming to Paris. And I wish I had an entire class returning with me next fall, who understand what it’s like to live elsewhere and then to come home, because they have done so too.
On the other hand, though, there’s something appealing about having this semester (almost) all to myself. It’s a little isolating, to be sure: yet turn isolation on its head and it becomes more akin to uniqueness. I can savor the taste of this semester without having to fully share it, guarding the memories instead, selfishly. I can picture a night out upon my return, with the few others I know who were abroad too. We will huddle around the table, our ragtag group of itinerant spirits, and raise our glasses to foreign cities, to foreign languages, and to when the past was still the present